Small productivity tips with large benefits

The following are four super-simple things you can do in less than five minutes to make a huge improvement in your productivity and efficiency.

First and foremost: disable the alert sound that announces every new email you receive on your computer. This alert sound is such a compelling distraction that it can pull me out of almost anything I’m doing. It’s similar to the sound of a ringing phone — no one can resist it. A lot of people learn to check email at pre-determined intervals (which I recommend), but even just silencing that insistent little beep and checking your email whenever you want will go a long way to reducing distractions and increasing productivity. I killed the beep on my iPhone, too. You can easily turn these notifications back on if the need arises.

A second suggestion and another large improvement for me was eliminating leisure computing after 9:00 p.m. Nothing increases productivity like sleep, and late-night Facebook browsing or tweeting was robbing me of that precious commodity. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy! I’m going to order the book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us by Larry D. Rosen for more insight on this topic. But even my modest efforts have been beneficial, as I’m getting more sleep.

My favorite online calendar is Google Calendar. I’ve been using it for years and I love it. However, I only recently discovered the “Quick Add” feature. Here’s how it works: when creating a new event, click the downward-pointing arrow next to the “Create” button. Then, enter an event that follows the what, where, and when pattern (note that only “what” and “when” are required). For example, “Meeting with Tom at Starbucks on Tuesday 2.15 p.m.” Using natural language is SO much faster than creating an event and filling each field one at a time. How did it take me so long to find this?

Finally, and this is my favorite, install an app launcher. This is a piece of software that, among other things, lets you launch applications with only a stroke of a key or two. I’m a Mac user and I swear by Alfred. LaunchBar is another popular alternative. On the Windows side, consider Launchy. With Alfred, I can open any app by hitting Command-Space and then typing just the first one or two letters of that app’s name. I can’t even measure how much time this saves me throughout the day. All of these programs do a lot more than launch other apps, but this feature alone makes them worth installing. In fact, when I get a new computer, the absolute first thing I do with it is install Alfred.

You can get fancy with your productivity enhancement to great benefit, but remember that sometimes small changes can make huge differences. Share your favorite small tips that reap huge rewards in productivity and efficiency.

Family calendars

When we had young children, it was important for us to have a large calendar on the wall so that everyone could see and prepare for upcoming engagements. It was a good teaching tool for the kids. They learned the days of the week and they learned to count down days until a big event.

We had the calendar posted on the wall in our dining room. This allowed us to see the upcoming day during breakfast, and at dinner we would discuss upcoming events plan for the following days. We used Command picture strips to mount the calendar on the wall. We also had a decorative wall-hanging the same size as the calendar. Whenever we had adult guests for dinner, the calendar came down and the decorative wall hanging went up.

We used a 60-day perpetual calendar. Everyone could see two months. When one month was done, we could add the next month so we would not miss things as one month rolled over to the next. It also allowed us to do longer-term planning.

Before the children could read, I used the computer to print various clip-art drawings for things like dentist and doctor appointments and holidays. I printed the clip-art drawings on removable stickers.

We assigned each person in the family a different colour for his or her events. We decided that because our last name is Brown, we would use a brown marker for events involving the whole family. Using the computer, we printed each person’s repeating events on removable coloured stickers in their assigned colours to save time writing each event over and over.

I included many things on my calendar that fellow Unclutterer, Jeri Dansky, suggests including community events, school events, and when to water and fertilize the houseplants. I also write garbage and recycle collection days on my calendar as well as household hazardous waste and electronics collection events.

As the children grew older, they were encouraged to write their events on the calendar themselves. They learned about budgeting time as well as coordinating with other family members.

I used a paper-based purse-sized planner that mirrored the wall calendar. On Sunday evenings, I would ensure that I had transferred the upcoming weeks events from my planner to the family wall calendar and visa versa. I used the printed removable stickers to quickly and easily put repeating events in my paper planner.

As technology improved and the children got older, our family moved to a shared, online calendar. Because we have Mac computers and iPhones, we decided to use the Mac Calendar app through iCloud. We subscribe to each other’s calendars and have given each other permission to add events to our calendars. Google Calendar is a good alternative. (Mashable has an article on how to set up Google Calendar for your family if you wish to learn more.)

There are several benefits of using an online calendar. Repeating events are easy to add. Any family member can add events to the calendar of other family members anywhere at any time. For example, if one of the children has an appointment and I am not able to take the child, I can add the appointment to my husband’s calendar so he knows he will be busy at that time.

Additional information can be added to an event. If you have a meeting scheduled, you can add the contact information of the person you’re supposed to meet, the address of the meeting venue and a list of documents required for the meeting. Events can have alerts and alarms to remind people where they need to be and when. This is important for teenagers whose eyes never seem to leave their phones.

Using a calendar to which the whole family has access is important in keeping everyone organized and on track. It doesn’t matter if it is a paper-based or electronic system, simply choose what works best for your family.

Writing emails that won’t be clutter

We’re all deluged with email; it’s a problem of the digital age. Noting this, how do you ensure your email is considered worthy of attention, and not seen as just more inbox clutter?

Be concise

Sometimes your email involves sharing a story with friends, and messages like that don’t always need to be succinct. But, if you’re writing to someone because you want some sort of reply — you’re asking for information, trying to set up an appointment, etc. — make it as easy as possible for the recipient. Don’t make someone wade through a long story to find out what you want.

But don’t be too brief; do include all the information needed for the other person to provide a meaningful response. I’ve seen many people asking for help about some computer-related problem without providing key information, such as what type of computer they’re using, what version of the software they are running, the specific error messages they are seeing, etc. Provide as much as necessary and little or nothing more.

Follow the policies of the group

Are you part of any mailing list, like a Yahoo Group or something else? Many of these groups have guidelines about how members should structure their messages; if your group has such guidelines, be sure to read them and follow them.

Since I’m a moderator of a freecycle group, this is a continual issue for me. We have specific subject line formats, a policy about how often things may be re-offered, etc. It causes more time and work (and frustration) for everyone when the policies are not followed.

Address the email properly

Do you want to reply, or reply all? Think about your recipient list, and whether everyone on that list really needs to see the message.

If you’re sending a message to a group of people, other than in a work situation, please respect everyone’s privacy and do not put all the email addresses in the To: field, where all the recipients can see them. Rather, put those email addresses in the Bcc: field.

Watch what you forward

I’ve seen many a well-intentioned person forward on a message alerting me to some horrifying problem, when a quick check of Snopes.com would show that the information simply isn’t true. If something sounds at all suspicious, please check it out before forwarding.

Also, make sure the people you’re sending those messages with cute animal photos or jokes really want to get them. People are often reluctant to hurt someone’s feelings by asking to get removed from such lists, even if they don’t want the emails — so you might add a note letting your recipients know that you want them to tell you if they’d prefer not to get such emails.

Avoid long signature files

There is certain information people usually want to see in your signature file, and your contact information is at the top of the list. But many people would prefer you skip your favorite quote, a list of every award you’ve ever won, and an admonishment to not print the email.

Consider that not all emails need the same signature. A reply might not need as much information as the email where you’re initiating a conversation. If you’re going back and forth in an email exchange, and you included your long signature file the first time, you don’t need to include it on every message in the chain.

It also looks a bit silly when you send a two-line message and have a 20-line signature file.

Be considerate with attachments

People might be reading email on a slow connection, so maybe it’s best not to include a 5 MB photo.

Review emails for problematic wording

For casual emails between friends, you can skip this step. But for others, I’d recommend reviewing your emails for points of possible ambiguity. Also, look for anything that might be taken the wrong way; humor and sarcasm often don’t work well in email, and snarky comments might come back to haunt you later.

Remember, too, that if crafting an email might take you 20 minutes, but a phone call only five, picking up the phone could be the least cluttered option available to you.

Using your calendar

My calendar is one of my primary tools for staying organized and I’d be at a total loss without it. I always check it before I end my day, to be sure I remember what’s coming up the next day.

I happen to use an electronic calendar, but I’d put the same things on my calendar if it were a paper one. What is on it?

The basic reasons almost everyone uses a calendar

  • Appointments
  • Due dates
  • Personal celebrations, like birthdays and anniversaries
  • Holidays, including religious ones that don’t always come with the calendar

Unconventional items to track on a calendar

  • Major local events — My small town has three annual events that draw a lot of visitors. I don’t tend to go to these events, but I want to remember that traffic will be horrible on these days.
  • Events I might want to attend — I put these in a different color than any other items, so I have a visual reminder that it’s a possible event when I look at my calendar.
  • Freecycle pickups — Since I freecycle a great deal, I may have lots of people coming to my house after each major offering, staggered over a number of days. I want to quickly remember whose bundles I need to put on my porch on which days.
  • Library book return due dates
  • Dates for canceling special offers — Every once in a while I get an offer for a free month of Amazon Prime, which I accept and then cancel before the automatic payment begins.
  • Reminders to send out email notices — I serve as the secretary of an organization and I need to send out email notices to other board members at specific times.
  • Important dates for close family and friends — It’s common for me to write down when they are on vacation.
  • Flight information, car rental information, and hotel information for my own travels — I’ll have confirmations of all of these in email, which I’ll copy to my Dropbox to have handy when traveling. But, the easiest way for me to quickly see all this information is to check my calendar.
  • Estimated tax due dates
  • Reminder of postage rate increases — I noted this when we had one January 26.
  • Things that happened that I didn’t plan for — For future planning, I like to remember when they happened.

Sometimes I include progress tracking toward a goal. For example, the number of emails in my inbox each day, as I’m working toward inbox zero.

There are a couple things I don’t include, which some other people do. I don’t include anticipated driving time to appointments, although I can see how that could be helpful. I also don’t include blocks of time for getting tasks done. Some time management systems recommend you schedule these on your calendar, to ensure they get done — and if that works for you, that’s great. I follow the Getting Things Done approach, where only items that have fixed times go onto my calendar, and that works better for me.

Each of us will have our own preferences on what goes onto our calendars and my choices won’t work for everyone, but they may give you some ideas. The key factor is to use your calendar consistently, however you choose to use it.

Go-bags

There are many things I’ve learned about organizing because my husband is in the military. Soldiers keep certain equipment and clothing packed in their rucksacks at all times. If they ever have to “bug-out” (called to duty in an emergency) they just grab their rucksacks and go. In these circumstances, it takes them five minutes to leave the house. Soldiers are provided with a list of what to have in their rucksacks at all times so they have everything they need.

I’ve implemented this system in our household for non-military purposes. When my children were babies, I had a list of items that I always needed in the diaper bag. Every time we arrived at home after being out, I restocked the bag with diapers, wipes, and creams. Then, I quickly looked down the list before heading out the door the next time to ensure I had everything in the bag.

As my children have grown older and are participating in activities, we’ve created a “go-bag” for each activity. Their items for that activity remain always in that bag unless being used or cleaned. We prepared a list of items for the bag, and even used pictures of the items to help them when they were younger.

The list was printed on an index card and laminated. On the reverse side of the index card was emergency contact information (child’s name, parent’s name and phone number, allergy information, etc.). The card was kept in a pocket of the go-bag or sometimes, attached to one of the zippers on the outside of the bag.

On arrival home from swimming lessons, the swimsuit and towel would be washed, shampoo refilled if necessary and the bag stowed on its dedicated hook in the hallway. Once laundered, the swimsuit and towel were returned to the bag.

This system works with sports gear and arts and craft supplies – and even your briefcase for work!

We continue to have a number of “go-bags” hanging in our entryway and I find that being able to get out of the house quickly with all of the necessary equipment is worth it.

Organizing references and bibliographies

Research papers are the backbone of most every course of study at university and also important in many workplaces. Keeping these projects organized can be tricky, but will significantly help the paper’s reader comprehension and also save the writer time.

Providing a list of references for your project shows that you have done research on the topic. It provides a way for others to easily find the materials you examined. Proper citations also give credit to those who had the original idea and those who did additional research on the topic.

As you are gathering information, it can be difficult to know which details are important to record. Do you need to provide the date a pamphlet was published? What about the date you accessed a website? How do you keep all of this information organized?

EasyBib and CiteThisForMe are two great (and free) websites that let you effortlessly create properly formatted references. You can save projects into folders, easily collaborate with coworkers or classmates, and share references with the public. (I made one for this post so you can see how it works.) The sites are nice for projects such as a presentation at work, a workshop to promote your small business, or a college class you’re taking to upgrade your skills.

If you’re a full-time student or researcher, you may wish to use more powerful reference management software. According to Wikipedia (which you wouldn’t want to cite in a research paper, but is great for this specific purpose), there are over 30 different reference management software applications available. The choice of software should be based on several factors:

  • Style: Humanities and Sciences use different citation styles and within these domains there are also different styles. Companies also have specific needs and might have style preferences. Be sure you know the standard to ensure you select a program that has the correct style for your work.
  • Cost: Some programs are free but have limitations on number of citations or amount of storage space. Some have small monthly or yearly fees. Choose the lowest cost for your basic needs with the ability to upgrade later if required. Also, if you’re a student, talk to your professors or the librarians at your college/university to see if may have free access for a specific program with your student account.
  • Operating system: Be sure the software you want will install on your type of operating system (Mac, PC, etc.). You may wish to select a program that can be used on a mobile device (tablet or smartphone).
  • Availability: Do you need to access your references from anywhere? Will there be an Internet connection everywhere you do research? Does the information need to sync across various computers?
  • Database Connection: Some programs will connect directly to various databases, such as the MEDLINE (Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System Online) database that would be helpful to students and professionals in medical fields.
  • Ease of use: It is important that the system you pick is easy to use. Is it simple to transfer citations from the program to your favourite word processor? Is it easy to collaborate with other students/coworkers and share citations on group projects? Explore two or three options and see how they work for you.

Regardless of the reference management application you choose, providing organized citations to your work will establish expertise and credibility to your project. Using bibliography/reference software will also help you to get all the information you need for your citations, keep you organized, save you time locating the information if you need to review it a second or third time, help other project members access the same information you did, and, ultimately, let your reader know how to get to the information. You’ll save yourself and everyone else time and energy.

Organizing your personal finances

Organizing your personal finances can be time consuming and even a little difficult, but that doesn’t mean it’s something you shouldn’t do. The following are a few tips to help you get your personal finances organized so you can save yourself time, stress, and even money over the course of the year.

Online banking

Set up online banking and learn to use a personal finance program. Personal Finance programs allow you to view all of your accounts including:

  • Everyday bank accounts
  • Loans and mortgages
  • Investment accounts
  • Credit card accounts

By being able to see everything in one place you will be able to take control of your finances and make good decisions based on accurate information.

There are several different personal finance programs available. Quicken is a very popular program for both Windows and Mac, but Quicken for Mac is only compatible with American banks. Mac users in other countries may wish to use iBank. Mint, because it is an online service, can be used on almost any computer or mobile device. However, it is currently only compatible with banks in Canada and the United States.

Track spending

Personal finance programs organize transactions into basic pre-defined categories but may not reflect your actual spending habits. Categories can be renamed or combined and new categories can be added depending on your lifestyle. It may take a few months of examining your transactions to determine the ideal categories for you. It is better to use a few broad topics at the beginning and then become more specific with use. After a few months of using online banking, you may choose to use sub-categories.

Shopping with your debit card instead of cash allows online banking to identify in what stores you shop and will help categorize transactions. You also may choose to keep receipts to enter more information about each transaction. Do not get too detailed. If you routinely purchase groceries and household items, such as garbage bags, laundry detergent and shampoo all at the same time from the same store, consider creating a category called “Groceries, Personal and Household Supplies”. This would encompass everything that is used for your home and the people in it.

Other categories to consider.

  • Financial Charges: Many banks charge extra fees for cheques, using another bank’s automated teller machines, or making payments or withdrawals in a foreign currency. If you track this information, you can easily tell how much you’re paying in extra fees. Check the different types of accounts and banking plans offered by your bank. Switching to a different plan may help you reduce these fees.
  • Interest Expense: It’s a bit of a shock to see how much interest is paid out on loans or bank overdrafts but it may also be the incentive you need to pay off any loans.
  • Charitable Donations: By tracking any donations, you can easily generate a list at the end of the year that will tell you how much you have donated and from which organizations you can expect a tax receipt. It will also be easier to report this information to your country’s tax office.

Simplify bill payments

Reduce the number of bills you have to pay by hand. Sign up for online bill payment services when possible.

If you buy things on credit (a highly debated topic here at Unclutterer), use only one or two major credit cards and cancel store credit cards. Most major credit cards have lower interest rates than store cards and great loyalty programs, including cash-back programs. Remember, just because you pay off a credit card and cut it up doesn’t mean the account is cancelled. Inform the credit card company in writing that you wish to cancel the account. Verify your credit score to ensure that the report indicates the credit card account has been closed as paid in full.

You might consider bundling services where possible to reduce the number of bills you need to pay. By consolidating your various insurance policies with one company, you may be eligible for discounted premiums or other bonuses. Utility companies as well as media/communications companies provide discounts for bundling services like phone, cable, and internet access.

Most utility and insurance companies offer equalized billing. By having a fixed amount to pay every month, it will be much easier to set and maintain a budget. Some companies offer a pre-authorized payment plan where the monthly amount is deducted directly from your bank account.

Manage documents

Designate certain days and times each month to manage your finances. Use this time to pay upcoming bills and update your account balances. You may wish to do your finances every Saturday morning or the first weekday after your payday. Whatever day you decide, write it down in your agenda and stick to the schedule.

If you are using traditional paper billing, keep all necessary items for bill paying in one place. Fill a plastic bin/box with your chequebook, envelopes, stamps, address labels, pen, and calculator. Label the bin “BILL PAYMENTS”. You can even put your bills in the bin as soon as they arrive. Once paid, the paper bills can be stored in a filing cabinet for up to 13 months. Thirteen months is a good timeframe because it allows you to compare the current month’s totals to what they were the previous year — this is nice for things like water bills where you may be able to spot a small leak before it becomes a major one.

If you opt for electronic billing download your bill/statement into a folder on your computer labelled, “Bills to Pay”. Once paid, it can be filed in its appropriate electronic folder. Ideally, the folders on your computer should mimic paper files, e.g. “Utilities – Electric”. Ensure that the bill/statement is in an easily readable format, such as a .pdf file.

Whenever you receive receipts that you can use for your income taxes, such as those for charitable donations, place them in an “Income Tax” file. You won’t need to waste time searching for them come tax time. Many agencies send tax receipts via email so set up a folder on your computer’s hard drive labeled “Income Tax”. Save all electronic copies of income tax slips and receipts to this folder as soon as they arrive.

Organizing financial matters takes some time and energy but you’ll reap the rewards financially and come tax time. With low-cost personal finance programs available, it is easier than ever to track your spending and make better decisions about your financial future.

Getting big projects done: best practices from successful writers

Writing a book is a huge project; many people who have a book they would like to write are so daunted by the effort required that they never get that book written. But successful authors have strategies for getting the work done — and these are strategies all of us can apply to our own big projects, regardless of type.

Break the work down into bite-sized pieces

Matt Swanson captures the overwhelmed feeling some potential authors have:

I’d like to write a book, but I don’t have time to do all that work.

But do you have an hour to outline a table of contents? Could you write 500 words today?

As Swanson indicates, focusing on just the next small step can get someone going — and step by step, the big project gets done.

In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes about focusing on “short assignments.” An example of one short assignment:

All I’m going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words.

Michelle Richmond echoes that thought:

Don’t be afraid to write a paragraph here, a page there. Not everything has to be a full-fledged chapter in the early stages of novel-writing. If you have a scene in your head that you know you want to write, go for it. But if you sit down at your computer and feel flustered and uncertain, allow yourself the freedom to think in small bits. Tell yourself, “Today I’m going to write 1200 words about where my character lives,” or “Today I’m going to write 500 words about what’s troubling the narrator.”

Lamott also quotes E. L. Doctorow:

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

What this means for the rest of us: Our big projects could be things such as preparing our tax returns, uncluttering our photos, or getting our files in order. We can emulate these authors, and break each project down into small pieces that feel doable.

Create a daily habit

Over and over, writers talk about the importance of writing every day — or at least five days per week. Some set a goal regarding number of words; others focus on hours spent doing the writing.

Srinivas Rao, who is writing a number of shorter pieces rather than a book, realized he’d never makes his commitments if he waited to be inspired, so he started writing 1,000 words every day:

If I woke up at a place that wasn’t home, I wrote 1,000 words.
If I had no idea what to write, I put my fingers on the keyboard … and I wrote 1,000 words.
If I didn’t feel like it (this one is really important), I wrote 1,000 words.

That meshes with the advice James Clear shares, from Khaled Housseni:

You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not.

What this means for the rest of us: We can also create daily practices, with specific goals. We could set the equivalent of a daily word-count goal; for example, we might commit to going through a certain number of files, papers, or photos. Or, we could decide to spend a certain amount of time working on our big project every day. Either way, we don’t have to make a huge time commitment — we’re not doing this for a living, as authors are with their writing! But seeing daily progress might be just what some of us need to keep going and get our projects done.

Here’s a strategy that Darren Rowse shares:

  1. Identify what you want to achieve.
  2. Allocate 15 minutes a day to it.
  3. Over the next year you will will spend 91 hours on your task.

Getting started with a daily routine

A few years ago, I was fed up with the frenzy of realizing something important was due … two hours after I had missed a deadline. After much trial and error, and a little dragging of my feet, I’ve established a workable daily routine. For me, adherence to a routine is especially important. Since I work from home, I’ve only got six hours to myself while my wife and kids are at school, and enough work for much more than that. I keep it all manageable, in part, with a fixed routine. It’s all about knowing what’s coming, preparing ahead of time, and finding a “home” for key items and ideas.

The view from up here – knowing what’s coming

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of my routine, I must briefly address projects. I define a project as David Allen does: anything that takes more than one action step to complete. Therefore, “land the new client” is a project, but so is “give Jr. permission to go on the field trip.”

In Getting Things Done, Allen emphasizes the importance of dealing with your stuff “when it shows up, not when it blows up.” If you can get past the Doctor Phil-ness of that rhyme, you see the wisdom in it. Remembering Jr.’s permission slip is no good after he’s been at school for two hours.

With this in mind, I have a running list of what tasks need to be done. My list is a week long, and it lives on a bulletin board behind my desk (I’ve previously written about my search for the perfect bulletin board). Each Sunday, I review what must be done over the next week, write those actions on index cards, and pin them to the board.

Preparing ahead of time

It took me years to learn this lesson. Remember the kid who was always rushing last second to finish that paper in school?

Hello. Nice to see you again.

Today I’ve finally realized that I’m not an adrenaline junkie, and that last-second frenzy is not something I enjoy. As a result, my daily routine actually begins the night before. As evening draws near, I:

  1. Make sure the kids’ bags are packed for school and that all required papers, etc. are inside those bags.
  2. Ensure that clean, weather-appropriate clothing is available for school the next morning.
  3. Review the “home” calendar (I have a separate work calendar) for pressing to-dos (sign permission slips, special pick-up or drop-off arrangements, etc.) and act accordingly.
  4. Review what’s due at work tomorrow, make sure it’s written down, and any necessary materials are ready to go for the morning.

Your evening prep list might look different, but the idea is the same: review what’s due tomorrow — be it a PowerPoint presentation or snow boots and gloves — and get it as ready as you can the night before.

Finding a home

Being who I am (warning: one NSFW word in the title of the linked post) I tend to misplace things. Just like the sun tends to be hot. So, a part of my daily routine has been to ensure that everything is where it needs to be.

This isn’t the same as my evening prep. Instead, I’ve established a “home” for important items when they’re idle. For example, car keys are always in the Roscoe, New York, coffee mug on my night stand. Always. My coat and hat live on the second peg of the closet door. Even when I’m walking around, I know which pocket each doohicky should inhabit (phone is right front, every day).

Following these rules impacts my day significantly. I can’t afford to spend 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there looking for who knows what. I’ve done that and it’s not fun. An ongoing part of my daily routine is to put everything in its proper place as I go.

General guidelines

The website Personal Organizing has shared some good, general tips for establishing and, more importantly, adhering to a daily routine. Some highlights include:

  1. Make breakfast simple. Find something nutritious that you can routinely prepare without much fuss.
  2. Organize the kitchen and pantry cabinets. Meal prep is easier, and everyone living with you can answer, “where does this go?” all on their own.
  3. Have a good mail management system. In regards to paper mail, my wife and I have our own desks for processing this stuff, and that’s been a godsend.
  4. Get the pets on a schedule. It takes some doing, but it’s definitely worth it.

Book review: Joseph Ferrari’s Still Procrastinating

Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done is a book that explains, in an easy-to-read format, the results of the past 20 years of scientific studies on procrastination and procrastinators.

The book defines procrastination as “the purposive delay of the starting or completing a task to the point of subjective discomfort.” More simply, procrastinators voluntarily do not work on important tasks and feel bad or uncomfortable about their delays because they know that this course of action will have negative effects in the future.

Studies cited in the book indicate that although everyone procrastinates about a few things, approximately 20 per cent of adult men and women are chronic procrastinators — they procrastinate habitually in many different areas of their lives. The studies also show that procrastination is a learned behaviour. If people understand why they procrastinate, they can get the support they need and develop strategies to help them learn new behaviours.

There are several types of procrastinators identified in the book.

Thrill-Seekers: These procrastinators claim they do better under pressure, when they feel the deadline is looming. Scientific studies show that these types of people are easily bored and the adrenaline rush of completing the task just before the deadline is a thrill they enjoy. What the studies also show is that even those these types of procrastinators believe they produce better results at the last minute, in reality they make more errors and do not complete all of the task’s components thoroughly.

Indecisives: These types of procrastinators delay making a decision until a choice is made for them. For example, they may wish to purchase tickets for the symphony but they can’t decide which night to attend and they delay so long that there are no tickets available. Studies show that Indecisives may have grown up in situations that did not allow them to acquire good decision-making skills.

Self-Saboteurs: These procrastinators intentionally place obstacles in their paths to prevent successful performance of a task. In this way they can blame external factors, such as not having enough time, to mask their anxiety and self-doubt. However, if this type of procrastinator completes the task successfully despite the obstacle, he/she will protect his/her self-esteem. Many of these self-saboteurs have low self-control. They are unable to delay their need for instant gratification and focus on the task at hand. They do not often reward themselves for a job well done and instead enjoy the “fun stuff” before they get their work done.

Perfectionists: Perfectionist procrastinators maintain impossibly high standards. They delay starting or finishing a task because being perfect is not realistically achievable. These types of procrastinators have a strong desire to be liked by others and show how hard they are working. They often justify their procrastination by saying delays will result in a better quality of work but this is not usually the case.

Regardless of the type of procrastinator with which people identify, Dr. Ferrari is optimistic about procrastinators changing their habits and behaviours. He suggests starting with small changes and gradually progressing. He indicates that getting organized is “Your Secret Weapon in Task Completion.” Do any of these four types of procrastination ring true with you or are you someone who only occasionally puts off tasks?

Professional organizers can certainly help procrastinators in their efforts to become non-procrastinators by helping them declutter, minimize distractions, and improve their time and task management skills. Sometimes consulting a mental health professional such as a cognitive behavioural therapist, may be helpful. Seeking support from family and friends who are non-procrastinators is advisable. These are the people that care for you and will hold you accountable for your changes in behaviour. Checking in daily with an accountability partner or having someone hangout with you as you work on a project at home (like cleaning out your closet) can be beneficial.

Dr. Ferrari states that procrastination is more than just having poor time management skills. Procrastination is an ineffective strategy to cope with the challenges of everyday life. By focusing on the positive aspects of your life and taking action, you can become less stressed and more productive.

Keeping New Year’s resolutions

Have you resolved to get more organized in 2014? The following suggestions are ways to ensure you actually accomplish the goals you’ve set.

Get a buddy or a support group

Here’s what works best for me when I’m trying to keep a resolution: involving other people in helping me reach my goal. One of my goals is to go walking daily. I have been most successful when I had a walking buddy as we’d keep each other going. Another thing that worked, although not quite as well, has been to get a Fitbit. I have friends that also use Fitbits, and we see each other’s daily step counts, and cheer each other on.

I’ve also found that having an accountability partner works well for me. For the past few months, I’ve been exchanging daily emails with a friend, telling her what I accomplished that day, and often mentioning my plans for the next day; she sends similar messages to me. Knowing I’m going to tell someone what I’ve completed inspires me to have good news to report every day. We’re each other’s cheering squad — and who couldn’t use one of those?

Be willing to adjust if necessary

If you find you’re having a hard time with a particular resolution, maybe you need to rethink it. For example, could you reach your goal using a different strategy than you originally had in mind?

Let’s say your goal was to keep up with your mail (or your email) and not let things pile up in your inbox. Maybe you intended to clear out your inbox every day. If that’s not working for you, what could you adjust? Would it work better to tackle this at a different time of day? Would it work better to set this as a weekly goal rather than a daily goal? Would it help to focus on eliminating the incoming mail, so there’s less to go through each day? Could someone else do a part of the “dealing with the mail” work?

You may find the resolution you set was simply overly ambitious. Maybe the answer is to set a new goal that still moves you in the right direction, even if it doesn’t take you quite as far, quite as quickly.

Make things easy; remove barriers

Continuing on the mail example: Do you get a lot of items that require shredding? If so, do you have a good shredder?

More generally, make sure you have the tools you need to support you in reaching your goals. For example, when I needed to get more exercise, one thing I needed was a pair of better shoes than the ones I had.

Understand the science of habits

Stopping bad habits and developing new ones isn’t always easy. If you understand more about how habits work, you may find it easier to get those new habits in place. One place to start would be The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, which looks at some recent research on this subject. Steve Silberman has an informative review of the book, as well as an interview with Duhigg.

It’s also worth realizing, as Margaret Lukens points out, establishing new habits might take longer than the 21 days or 30 days you’ve probably heard about. If it’s taking a while for your new habits to become automatic, that’s normal — and no reason to get discouraged.

Creating New Year’s Resolutions for 2014

After Christmas each year, the search function on our website gets a lot of activity by people looking for articles on “how to get organized” and “be more organized.” This is of little surprise since “Get Organized!” is such a common New Year’s Resolution.

Over the next couple weeks, we are going to address New Year’s Resolutions in a series of posts — how to create them, how to make a plan for achieving them, technology that can help you work on them, and even an alternative perspective on how not to make them. We want to help the thousands of people looking to get rid of clutter and find more organization in the new year, just as we do every day, but also lend a helping hand to those of you creating resolutions that have nothing at all to do with clutter and disorganization.

Brainstorm

Grab a pen and paper, find a quiet and comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. Spend a few minutes in solitude trying your best to think about nothing. If you’re like most people (myself included) it will be very difficult to clear your mind, especially if this is not an activity you do regularly. Responsibilities, concerns, wishes, dreams, embarrassing situations, and maybe a few random jokes will flood your mind. As they do, write down these thoughts on your paper and then quickly return to trying to clear your mind. Eventually, you’ll either tire of the activity or be successful at having a clear mind, and this is when you can stop the meditation activity and review the list you created.

Do you notice any themes among the items on your list? Do you see items that evoke strong feelings — good or bad? Are there items on your list of things you wish to change or improve upon or achieve?

While reviewing this list, think about how you want to feel in 2014. Like most people, you probably wish to have more energy, more happiness, and less stress. Are there any items on your list that will help you achieve these feelings of contentment?

Work through your notes and begin to draft your resolutions for the new year.

Be precise

After brainstorming, “Get Organized!” may still be at the forefront of your resolutions. Unfortunately, it is an extremely vague resolution, and people who make vague resolutions are more likely to fail at achieving them than people who make precise resolutions.

Do you want to get organized at work or at home? Is there a specific area of your life where, if you were more organized, you would have less stress? Do you have one or two projects that are out of control and a little organizing can help them succeed?

The more exact you are with what you want to change, the more likely you will be to create steps to help you achieve your resolutions. Instead of “Get Organized!” perhaps you want to create precise resolutions like: Better organize the children’s bedtime routine; Organize and file medical records and bills; Unclutter clothes that don’t fit from bedroom closet; Research, acquire, learn how to use, and maintain a new project management system at work.

Be realistic

There are a number of things I would like to change about myself, but I am not super human. I have limitations — limited time, energy, finances, etc. As a result, I’ve never been successful at achieving more than 12 resolutions (one per month) in a given year. And, most years, I’ve only been able to achieve four or five large resolutions. You know yourself best, so be realistic with what you can achieve. If you have a newborn at home, you may only want to have two or three resolutions for 2014. If “Get the proper amount of sleep each night by going to bed by 10:00 pm” is one of your resolutions, as it is one of mine, put it at the top of your list. The more energy you have, the more likely you’ll be to achieve the other resolutions on your list.

Further reading

When creating New Year’s Resolutions, I always think about the brilliant and inspiring Danielle LaPorte. Her book The Desire Map is one of the best books I’ve encountered for helping to decide what new path or paths you wish to take in life.