Get organized to run meetings effectively

There are a lot of things I like to do in this world, but running a meeting isn’t one of them. Years ago, I had a boss who would call me into his office and talk for a good half hour. As I walked back to my desk, I’d think, “So, what just happened in there?” Now, when I’m in charge of a meeting, I worry: will my attendees walk away with a clear idea of what was said and what, if anything, needs to be done?

I recently found myself in the unenviable position of sitting at the head of the table, as it were, but not until I had done some research on effective ways to run a meeting. There are a lot of articles out there on the topic, and here I’ve collected the best advice I could find. Now, please come to order and review these tips for running an effective meeting.

WikiHow provided advice that I’ve been advocating for a long time. Partly because of my admitted meeting anxiety, and partly because I really don’t like wasting time. Specifically, determine if a face-to-face meeting is really necessary at all. There are instances when you simply must sit down in the same room to have a conversation or spark collaboration. But, if the agenda is something that can be accomplished with an email thread or a quick conference call, do that instead. You’ll save everyone a lot of time.

They also suggest distributing the meeting’s clear goals in advance. I’ll admit that I’ve never done this. Instead, I hand out a paper agenda as people are sitting down to the table. This throwback behavior from the ’80s is distracting, as everyone sits and reads the paper or thinks ahead to the topic they’re most or least interested in. From now on, I’ll distribute the agenda a day or two ahead of time, so people can show up ready to go.

Forbes also has some great advice for meetings. For example, “spend twice as much time on the agenda as you normally would.” In other words, the clearer and more tightly-defined each item is on the agenda, the more efficient your meeting will be. I also like their suggestion to allot half the time you initially think the meeting will need. “Meetings are like accordions,” says Victor Lipman, “they stretch naturally to fill the allotted space.”

I used a similar trick on myself when I was in college, after learning about Parkinson’s Law, which states: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If a professor told me I had 3 weeks to complete an assignment, I’d tell myself I had two. Otherwise, I knew I’d be at my desk working feverishly on day 20.

Inc. has advice that addresses types of meetings. One type, the Action Meeting, is the format I’m probably most familiar with. The goal is to devise and implement a solution to a pressing problem or outstanding project. One trick I learned from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done is to end each of this type of meeting by saying, “OK, so my next actions are …” Stating this out loud confirms that you are clear on your assignment(s), and that your bosses are clear on that fact, too. Inc. also emphasizes the importance of keeping in touch after the meeting has ended. This is an area that I’ve struggled with in the past. While I’ll make a list of actions that I’ve delegated (my “Waiting For” list), I don’t always follow up with people responsible for these tasks on a regular basis. That’s something I’ll start doing.

Of course, a meeting isn’t restricted to the board room. You might be on a council or committee at your kids’ school or a church. Less formally, you may even have family meetings to discuss finances or monthly schedules or vacations. These lessons may apply there, too. If you have tips for running an effective meeting, let me know. I’m always willing to improve in this area.

Tips for move preparation

Moving is stressful. Being organized and planning in advance can help relive that stress. If you’re moving in the near future, the following are some tips that you can do right now that will reduce the stress during the move.

Buy smaller. Many of us buy the larger “club pack” or “family-size” packages in order to save a few dollars. However when it comes time to move, we may end up with only half finished bottle of ketchup or half finished bottle of bleach. If you’re moving a short distance, you may be able to transport these items yourself. If you’re moving a longer distance, keep in mind that most moving companies won’t transport perishable foods or cleaning products. Whatever items you have left may end up getting thrown out or given away to neighbours and friends. About three to six months before moving, think about buying smaller size packages to ensure that you’ll have used up the products by moving day.

Watch your mail. Make a list of all the mail you receive. Unsubscribe from magazines and catalogues you no longer wish to receive. Record subscription numbers of magazines you want to receive in a designated paper file or on a computer spreadsheet. If you donate to charities, make sure they have your new address so that you will receive your income tax receipts for next year.

Pitch the paper. The heaviest thing to move in your house might not be your piano or your fitness equipment — it might be your paper. From stuffed filing cabinets to shelves full of books, there is a lot of paper in your home. Shred documents you are no longer required to keep. Donate gently used books.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be. Although it is fine to borrow items and loan them out, now is the time to return anything you’ve borrowed and reclaim the things you’ve loaned. It may take some time to track down everyone and everything, so start as soon as you can. Ensure your children have returned items to their friends and have collected items they’ve loaned out, too.

Collect contact information. Ensure you have the contact information (address, phone numbers) of medical, dental, and health service centres (physiotherapist, etc.) you’ve visited. You’ll need this information to have your records transferred to your new health service centres. Take a business card from the clinic and write down their hours on the back of the card. When you go to the new medical clinic you can take the business card from your previous clinic, so it will be easier to have the records transferred. Avery business card pages help keep the business cards organized.

Start your home sale preparations. If you’re selling your home, consider having your home inspected. An inspector will tell you all of the things you need to get repaired or updated prior to putting your home on the market. You may want also want to consult a home stager. Home stagers will give you advice on choosing paint colours and accessorizing your home to make it more attractive to buyers. By booking in advance, you’ll give yourself time to re-paint and do all the little necessary touch ups. It will give you the chance to spread the cost over several months, too.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2012

  • Be productive no matter where you are
    You can be productive no matter where you are. Follow these tips to find where your productivity flourishes.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: The Pepper Prepper
    Although this week’s unitasker selection is called a Pepper Prepper — which conjures up images of a sweet pepper with a sweater tied around its shoulders heading off to Phillips Academy — I’m renaming it the Pepper Screw. It’s like a corkscrew, but it’s just for removing the tops and bellies of sweet peppers.

2011

2009

Keeping things simple

Sometimes we get bogged down when uncluttering or organizing because we make things too complicated. The following are some examples of ways to avoid complexity and get things done.

Shredding

C. G. P. Grey said in one of his podcasts that he shreds all papers he’s decided not to keep. This saves him sorting through papers and deciding which ones need to be shredded and which ones don’t. We know people hit “decision fatigue,” so there’s definitely some logic to avoiding unnecessary decision-making and saving one’s mental energy for where it’s really needed.

Using simple tools, when that’s all you need

I used to be intrigued by all the fancy apps for creating and managing to-do lists, and those apps certainly make sense for some people. But at some point, I realized that for me a simple text file was sufficient, and going back to that basic tool made my life easier. Sometimes extra features are a distraction, not a benefit.

Label makers provide another example of a tool that might be overly complicated for you. I happen to like using one, but two of my fellow professional organizers recently explained why they don’t use label makers. If handwritten labels meet your needs, go for it! They’re certainly simpler to create.

Sorting papers and naming files

Many files are easy to sort and name. Most people don’t struggle with how to file financial or medical information, for example.

But for random papers that fall outside the standard categories, things aren’t as obvious, and it’s easy to get hung up on how to file those papers. I’ve found it simplifies my filing to have one file named “Fingertips” for all that unrelated information I use the most often — the things I want to have at my fingertips. In The Organized Mind, author Daniel J. Levitin mentioned someone who found it useful to create the filing equivalent of a junk drawer. He called that file “Stuff I don’t know where to file.” And Judith Kolberg wrote in Conquering Chronic Disorganization about someone who created files named “Why can’t I find this when I need it?” and “Things clients bug me for.”

Once we create these simple but less conventional types of files, many filing dilemmas disappear.

Giving things away

It can be easy to get caught up in trying to find the perfect new homes for things we’re getting rid of, and sometimes (especially for sentimental things) that can be worth the time and effort. But other times the easiest answer is the best.

I have a large serving platter that was a gift; it’s something I don’t need or particularly like, so I know I want to get rid of it. (I also know it isn’t valuable enough to be worth my time to sell it.) I enjoy giving things away on freecycle, since I’m part of a great freecycle community, but I didn’t have any luck when I tried to freecycle the platter months ago. I was about to try again, but then I realized it would be simpler to just take it to the nonprofit thrift store that’s five minutes from my home. It’s going there tomorrow.

Unitasker Wednesday: Infant Whirlpool Bubbling Spa

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

Regular readers of the site know that I’m a mom with a five-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter. If I were to compare myself to most moms in the US, I’d describe myself as fairly typical when it comes to buying baby supplies and such. I never went over the top with buying gadgets, but certainly spent some money on tools that made being a parent to a baby more convenient (e.g. we own a fancy diaper pail but not a self-rocking bassinet).

As a typical parent, I was surprised that this week’s unitasker selection made me roll my eyes. Most ridiculous baby things I can find a reason why someone might need them for their kid. Heck, even the self-rocking bassinet I mentioned previously I could understand buying if it was the only way to get my kid to sleep through the night. No judgments from me on that choice.

However, I do not understand why a baby could ever need his own whirlpool bubbling spa.

Not only is it an extravagance that would likely be completely lost on an infant (running water into a tub or sink would probably entertain the kid just as much), but it’s not particularly sanitary. Whirlpools have an incredibly high risk for bacteria growth, and I can’t imagine voluntarily subjecting a child to such an unnecessary risk.

Plus, you have to store this thing and power it (plug it in? put batteries in it?) somehow, which is something you don’t have to do with your kitchen sink or bathtub. It seems to me that in every scenario this device is far more hassle than it’s worth. It seems like a product a manufacturer created without any parent wanting such an item.

There is also a part of me that is convinced this is a foot spa that someone slapped a baby sticker on its side. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn a marketing person pitched the idea to increase sales: “New parents will buy anything! Like, lets call our foot spa a baby whirlpool! A baby will totally fit in there.”

A year ago on Unclutterer

2012

2011

2010

  • Unitasker Wednesday: MySneezee
    When I hear the phrase “sneeze guard,” I think of the glass shield that sits above the food on a buffet line. But I’m wrong, I should be thinking of MySneezee!
  • Simple, utilitarian, uncluttered cooking ideas
    Unless you’re a professional chef or have super powers, your cooking routines are likely similar to mine; you’re interested in finding meals you can make when you’re wearing your proverbial Cook’s hair net instead of your Chef’s hat. Here are more than 100 ideas to get you cooking, uncluttered style.
  • Workspace of the Week: No-mayhem mudroom
    It’s not really a workspace, but it’s still an inspiring space — a narrow hallway that was transformed into a highly functional mudroom.

2009

  • Unclutter Your Life in One Week and a special bonus
    Unclutter Your Life in One Week would not be possible without you, the Unclutterer.com readers. In fact, you’re the first people thanked in the acknowledgments section of the book. As a sign of my appreciation, I want to offer you all something in return. I wish that I could give you a discount on the book, but the publishers and retailers have a tight lock on that part of the process. So, here is a special bonus that I can give without ruffling any feathers

Organize wiry earbuds

When not in use, they’re unwieldy and messy. Even when tucked in a drawer, they tend to sprawl out and take over the whole thing. But, even though they create a mess, I still prefer to have them.

I’m talking about earbuds.

When you buy a new smartphone or digital music player, you often get a “free” pair. They don’t usually fit well, so you buy a cheap pair from the drug store or the mall. Perhaps you’re an audiophile, which means you likely ignore the default pair for something you really like. Next thing you know, all your earbuds’ cables are tangled and messy and all over the place and you’re longing for a clutter-free solution.

The starting point, of course, is to give away all your unused pairs. Some folks know they’ll never use the set that shipped with their new device. If that’s the case, don’t even unwrap them. Perhaps there is someone among your family or friends who would love to have them. Ebay and other online auction sites are an option, though you shouldn’t expect to get a lot for them. Freecycle is easy, too.

For the earbuds you choose to keep, having a cable organizer is a must. I recently received a Cord Taco from This Is Ground and I love it. This super-simple circle of leather and closes with a button (it’s pictured above). Once you’ve got the things wrapped up, you can pop them in a drawer or on a desk, tangle-free. They sell in packs of five on Amazon for less than $30. You can keep them all for yourself or keep one and give the rest as gifts to family and friends who could use them.

If you’re the DIY type, your options are many for earbud control. A good, old-fashioned ID clip works in a way that’s very similar. It’s not as pretty as a Cord Taco, but it does have the added benefit of a clip.

There are numerous other options you can buy from online retailers or your local electronics’ store if you’re keen on wrapping up your cables when you’re finished using them. Erin swears by her LG Bluetooth headset, which gets rid of the cable completely, but is significantly more expensive than most earbuds.

Of course, earbud cable management is an excellent opportunity to get tinnovative. The term tinnovations refers to the practice of repurposing or hacking an Altoids tin in a fun, useful way. It’s quite simple to rig up an earbud holder with a tin. You can even make a nice little speaker if you’re up to it.

Finally, lets say you don’t want to buy extra hardware or make something that will itself clutter up the joint. If that’s the case, check out this super clever way to wrap up earbud cords into a tidy package that’s sturdy yet just as easy to take apart. I like this technique.

There you have several ways to tidy up these insidious little things. Now get to it, and enjoy the look of your earbuds for a change.

Schedule a Little Jobs Day to get lingering items off your to-do list

There are many ways to make a to-do list. Tasks can be sorted in order of priority: repairing a broken handrail (safety) would be completed before repainting the bathroom (cosmetic). Some people choose to sort tasks by context or by time and energy available.

I use On Top of Everything to create my to-do list. This system allows me to easily sort by priority. By adding the estimated time it takes to complete each task, I’ve found I can make use of short time periods when they avail themselves. I can easily sew on a button or fix the hem of a skirt in few minutes. It is much more productive than playing Solitaire.

Even though my to-do list system works quite well for me, many of the non-priority items, usually those requiring more than 30 minutes of work, remain on the list week after week because higher priority items take their place.

Seeing uncompleted tasks on my list week after week is a little depressing and at times it becomes overwhelming. In order to cope with this, every few months I schedule a “Little Jobs Day” (LJD) and recommend you do the same.

On LJD, I work on the non-priority jobs requiring less than one hour. I usually choose either a day on a long-weekend or a scheduled day off from work. Long weekend LJDs are great because there are usually people around to help with projects, such as hanging pictures or washing windows. However, shopping for supplies may be difficult on long weekends because stores may be closed. Weekday LJDs can be very productive. Stores are usually less busy, so shopping can take less time. With family members at work or school on weekdays, you are less likely to be interrupted on projects that require concentration — or that require people not touching wet paint.

Regardless of when you schedule your LJD, you’ll feel more relaxed looking at a shorter to-do list.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Breakfast Sandwich Maker
    This week’s unitasker is one of the more convoluted contraptions we’ve ever featured. In short, this clunky small appliance cooks eggs into a round shape so they fit nicely onto an English muffin … same as a pan.

2012

  • Unclutterer odds and ends
    A few administrative announcements from Unclutterer on October 9, 2012.
  • Creating uncluttering and organizing routines: A typical Tuesday
    A day-in-the-life example of how you can plan your day to stay on top of uncluttering and organizing efforts.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: Hot Dog Slice and Serve
    I often think this weekly feature could be renamed “Instead of a knife …” Instead of a knife, this thing-a-ma-jigger slices a banana! Instead of a knife, this gadget somehow sections a grapefruit! Instead of a knife, own a thousand unitaskers that you don’t need and that take up a ridiculous amount of space in your kitchen cupboards!
  • What’s in your wallet?
    Do you know what’s in your wallet? Follow these five steps to keep it organized and from bursting at the seams.

2011

2010

  • Easily identify metric and SAE tools with red electrical tape
    Colored electrical tape is a great way to keep things grouped.
  • Simple strategies for marking items
    After Saturday’s simple tape suggestion, PJ and I have been talking about our favorite tricks for marking items. Here are a handful more tips for identifying items in your home and workspace.
  • Sleek and streamlined diaper bags
    Diaper bags — like purses and wallets — can be magnets for clutter. I speak from personal experience when I say that things go into them and rarely, if ever, come out. The smaller the bag, usually the easier it is to keep it clutter free and stuffed only with essentials.
  • Organize your writing, J.K. Rowling style
    The website /Film reported on Friday about author J.K. Rowling’s method for organizing her books. Using pen, notebook paper, and a simple grid, she plotted out the direction of her stories.

Book Review: The Organized Mind

The Organized Mind, by Daniel J. Levitin, is a mixed bag. Some chapters are packed with interesting information, while others are much less compelling. However, I learned enough from this book that I’m definitely glad I read it. The following are some of the key ideas, organized by the book’s chapters.

The first things to get straight

Levitin begins by describing some basics about how the brain works, with a fascinating explanation of why memory is so fallible. There’s also a nice explanation of how our brains handle categorization. Both of these brain traits affect the recommendations he provides later on for getting organized.

Organizing our homes

One principle that Levitin emphasizes again and again is “offloading the information from your brain and into the environment” so you “use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.” Everyone who has ever done something like leaving the library book that needs to be returned next to the car keys has made use of this principle.

One interesting example that Levitin provides is: “If you’re afraid you’ll forget to buy milk on the way home, put an empty milk carton on the seat next to you in the car or in the backpack you carry to work on the subway (a note would do, of course, but the carton is more unusual and so more apt to grab your attention).”

Levitin also emphasizes the importance of putting things away in their designated places, because there’s a special part of our brain dedicated to remembering the spatial location of things. However, the brain is only good at remembering stationary things, not things that move around — so if you put your car keys in a different place every time, your brain is less likely to help you out when you go to find them.

Categorization is also emphasized in the text; since our brains are good at creating categories, using categories well gives us an easy tool for getting organized. Levitin discusses the need to balance category size and category specificity; for example, someone with just a few tools will categorize them very differently than someone with many more. Levitin is also a big fan of the junk drawer for things that simply don’t fit in any category.

Good labels matter, too. As Levitin writes, “A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item. … With mislabeled drawers, you don’t know which ones you can trust and which ones you can’t.”

Levitin also notes that creativity and organization are not antithetical — rather, they go hand in hand. He provides examples from musicians Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, Michael Jackson, and John Lennon to drive home this point.

Organizing our time

You’ve certainly heard this before, but Levitin emphasizes it repeatedly: Brains are not designed for multitasking. “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” The continual shifting “causes the brain to burn through fuel” and depletes the brain of nutrients. There’s also a study that shows that learning new information while multitasking “causes the information to go to the wrong part of the brain.”

Levitin writes that it’s very tempting to continually check email, because handling email appeals to the novelty-seeking portion of the brain, and each response triggers a “shot of dopamine” that makes us want to do more of the same. But we’ll be more productive if we check email a few times a day, rather than every five minutes.

Levitin also provides considerable information on the importance of getting sufficient sleep. You’ve probably heard that before — but if you ignored the advice, this book might convince you that it really does matter.

Organizing the business world

Levitin provides tips to remember when filing: “File things, either electronic or physical, in a way that will allow you to quickly retrieve them. Ask yourself, ‘Where will I look for this when I need it?’ or ‘How can I tag or label this item so that I’ll be able to find it?'”

There’s also some good advice about scheduling meetings. Rather than scheduling meetings back-to-back, give yourself 10 minutes after each meeting to make sure you’ve captured all relevant information. It also helps to have 10 minutes free before any meeting. “Because attention switching is metabolically costly, it’s good neural hygiene for your brain to give it time to switch into the mindset of your next meeting gradually and in a relaxed way.”

Organizing information for the hardest decisions

Anyone dealing with making a major medical decision will find a lot of useful information here about understanding the probabilities associated with each choice, and balancing risk and reward.

Not a unitasker: The waffle maker

Back in July, the editor of Waffleizer.com messaged me and asked if I wanted an advanced copy of his new book. I responded with an enthusiastic “yes!” And then, in August, Will it Waffle? arrived.

Ever since, I’ve been trying out different recipes from Daniel Shumski’s book, and am now a devoted fan. My family loves the meals I’ve made from it, too, which says a great deal because they’re a bunch of picky eaters. The Zucchini-Parmesean Fritters are their favorite. (Its paperback list price is $14.95, but Amazon has it for less than $12 right now and the Kindle edition is less than $10.)

The premise of the cookbook is that when used only for waffles, your waffle maker is a unitasker, and people should typically avoid unitaskers. But, since a waffle maker is the only way to make fresh waffles at home, Shumski sought out ways to turn it into a multi-tasking appliance. His was a noble quest, and it’s refreshing that he succeeded. The cookbook contains more than 50 recipes to create on a waffle iron.

As you might expect, there are a handful of sandwich recipes in the book. A waffle maker and a panini press are quite similar, so this section of recipes is to be expected. (Not to say they’re boring recipes, because they are quite delicious. Family favorites are the ham and cheese melt with maple butter and the Cuban sandwich.)

What’s most impressive to me about the book are the recipes that you wouldn’t expect — for example, chicken fingers, wontons, crispy kale, tamale pie, pizza, soft cell crab, and steak. And, unlike in other preparations, most of these recipes don’t require consistent monitoring. You put the item on the waffle iron, set the timer, and simply wait until the item is done cooking. You’re free to make sauces or side dishes or set the table in the meantime.

Based on your model of waffle iron, cleanup afterward is also extremely convenient if your waffle iron has removable plates that can go in the dishwasher or a non-stick coating you can wipe down with a damp cloth and be done with it. I like easy, and all of the recipes I’ve tried and their cleanup were a breeze.

One of my favorite sections of the cookbook is about creating your own recipes for the waffle maker and, specifically, the listing of what won’t waffle. Foods requiring a lot of moisture, like rice, won’t work in a waffle maker and neither will things that have a lot of butter, like shortbread cookies. Then, obviously, foods like soup are out of the question. But, I was surprised by how much is able to be waffled and am glad Shumski provides this encouragement for creativity.

If you have a waffle maker and you’re interested in transforming it from a unitasker into a multi-tasker, check out Shumski’s book Will it Waffle? Then, start thinking about the other small appliances in your home and how you can put them to use in multiple ways.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

  • Organizing with pets
    The following are tips to help you and your pet cope with uncluttering and reorganisation projects safely.

2011

2010

2009

  • Organizing a party pantry
    I was recently given a copy of the book Simple Stunning Parties at Home by its author Karen Bussen. In the book, Karen suggests organizing a “party pantry” so that “when it’s time to throw a dinner party or a wine and cheese night on the spur of the moment, I look [to it] for design inspiration, and I pull together all the elements I need.” She lives in a small New York City apartment, so her party pantry isn’t large or cluttered. She recommends a “small closet, a cupboard in the kitchen, or an antique hutch — whatever works for you.”