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.

When multitasking can be dangerous

In an effort to get more done each day, we’re often tempted to multitask. As Erin has noted before, sometimes this is fine — for example, running a load of laundry while I’m writing this post is unlikely to cause any problems. However, when both tasks require focused attention, multitasking can actually be detrimental to productivity. As Tim Wu wrote in The New Yorker, “The brain is not good at conscious multitasking, or trying to pay active attention to more than one thing at once.”

While this attempted multitasking would usually just make us less efficient, sometimes it can be downright dangerous. The dangers of texting while driving are self-evident, since taking our eyes off the road can’t be a good thing. One study showed that the crash risk when texting was 23 times greater than when not texting. (Another study reported a less drastic figure, with an eight times greater crash risk, but that’s still very high.) Drivers who texted had their eyes off the road for an average of 5 seconds, which is long enough to go the length of a football field for someone driving at 55 miles per hour.

But studies show that talking on a cell phone while driving, even hands-free, is also very dangerous. A white paper from the National Safety Council (PDF) states: “A few states have passed legislation making it illegal to use a handheld cell phone while driving. These laws give the false impression that using a hands-free phone is safe.”

In an 18-minute video, Dr. David Strayer of the University of Utah’s Applied Cognition Lab explains the problems with talking on a cell phone when driving, noting that:

  • Someone talking on a cell phone, hands-free or not, is about four times more likely to be involved in an accident than someone who isn’t using a cell phone. That’s about the same risk level as a person who is driving drunk at a .08 blood alcohol level.
  • Listening to the radio at normal volume levels doesn’t result in impairment. Neither does talking to a passenger. In fact, talking to a single adult passenger actually lowers the crash risk a bit. (David Teater, the senior director of Transportation Initiatives at the National Safety Council, makes this same point in another video.) Passengers will know to stop talking if the driving situation gets difficult, and can serve as a second set of eyes.
  • “Just looking at something doesn’t mean you’ll see it.” When people are talking on cell phones, their attention is diverted from processing traffic-related visual information (pedestrians, cars, traffic signals, etc.) and they “fail to see up to half of the information that they would normally have seen.”
  • People talking on cell phones tend to only look straight ahead, rather than also looking at things in their periphery by using their side mirrors and rear view mirror.

While many U.S. states have restrictions on texting and driving, and some restrict talking on a handheld phone, it’s currently legal in all states for most drivers to talk on the phone hands-free. (Young drivers, novice drivers, and bus drivers are restricted in some states.) However, the studies show it’s a bad idea.

For increased productivity with your work, avoid multitasking when you need focused attention. More importantly, avoid the types of multitasking that can create dangers for yourself and/or others. If you’re driving, pull off the road if you need to make a call or send a text message.

Part 3: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

In my opinion, one of the best parts of kids being in school is that it can bring more routine into their lives and yours. Years of research by social scientists strongly concludes that routines help children adjust better to new situations and also improves the overall happiness of a family. For the school year to run smoothly, routines are a valuable key, and schedules and calendars are a great way to get started creating this practice.

Although it might seem a bit cumbersome, I suggest each family have at minimum a shared calendar and a shared routine schedule. Then, each person in the family will likely want a personal calendar (and maybe even a personal routine) to keep track of things like homework, projects, and personal to-do items.

A family calendar

Whether digital or print, there needs to be a calendar everyone in the family can post items to and review together. In our house, we’re currently using a 17-month Chalkboard Wall Grid Calendar that Paper Source sent to me (it’s pictured at right). I’ve embellished extremely important dates with some Washi Tape, but mostly we just write shared events onto the calendar with a black pen — nothing too fancy or a pain to update.

I also continue to love Martha Stewart’s Chalkboard Paint Wall Calendar, and if we owned our home I would immediately paint this up on a wall. A big visual calendar provides lots of room to write important family events, as well as creates decoration for what might otherwise be a plain wall.

If your kids are older, a shared digital calendar like Google Calendar (great for all mobile devices) or Fantastical (for iPhone) might be a good alternative for you.

The most important parts of keeping a family calendar are 1. remembering to add items to the calendar, and 2. reviewing the calendar each evening so everyone in the family is in-tune with tomorrow’s events. In our house, we add important events to the calendar as they pop up and then review the calendar each night as a family before the kids take their baths. Some families choose to review the calendar during the evening family meal, which is also good for keeping conversations going. The only warning about talking about the calendar at dinner time is if you keep the calendar digitally it means everyone will come to the meal with an electronic device (this is a no-no in our house, but I know it’s not the same for all families).

For more information on calendars, read our in-depth article “Family calendars.”

A family routine

If you’ve read my book Unclutter Your Life in One Week, you know I’m a detailed routine planner listing specific times and tasks to complete each day. Currently, with a toddler at home full time, two adults who work primarily from our home office, and an elementary schooler with a lot of energy and a handful of extracurricular activities, our house would fall into complete disarray if we didn’t keep to such a regimented schedule.

I’ve heard numerous complaints over the years from people saying that routines are dull and kill creativity and fun. I find them to be the exact opposite. Because our family has routines in place for the repeated activities at home, the things that must get done do so without much effort or thought and then leave us free to enjoy ourselves the rest of the time. When we head out to the zoo or a festival or go on vacation, we live purely in those moments. We’re not thinking about dishes or laundry or other things we should be doing — because those things are done or scheduled to be completed at a specific time. Our free time is truly free because our routines make this possible.

I recommend creating a family routine in Excel or a similar grid-style software program. Include all seven days of the week and break down responsibilities to the house by time of day and who will complete the task. For variety, you can switch up who does what on different days, or you may choose to keep the same responsibilities with each person if that is easier for your family. As you crate your routine chart, be realistic about how much you can do and how long tasks take to complete. Time yourself for a number of days to make sure you aren’t underestimating the length of a task.

Our family routine chart includes items like packing lunches, creating weekly meal plans, grocery shopping, feeding and caring for pets, regularly scheduled lessons and appointments, laundry, dishes, chores throughout the house, and even who puts the trash can out on the curb for pickup and who brings it back. We also identify which load of laundry is done each day — clothes on Mondays, towels on Tuesdays, more clothes on Thursdays, and sheets on Fridays.

At the start of each month we review the routine chart as a family and add and subtract and make alterations as necessary. Everyone receives a printed copy of the routine chart on the first day of each month.

For more information on creating routines, read our detailed article “Routines can make even the most unsavory tasks easy” and check out pages 98-99 of my book.

Personal calendars

In addition to the shared family calendar, each person in our home (except for the toddler) has a personal calendar. Our son keeps track of school assignments and violin practice records in his pocket calendar provided by his school. My husband, who loves all things digital, uses Google Calendar. He uses Gmail, so it’s even easier for him to schedule items that come into his inbox because the programs are integrated. I’m a tactile person, so I use the Staples Arc Planner for my appointments and obligations. (And, on the off-chance you’re curious, I use the Emergent Task Planner by David Seah for my to-do list. I have an Arc Planner hole punch, so the pages fit right into my Arc Planner.)

The personal calendars my husband and I keep are primarily full of work-related items, but other activities are included. It can be easy to forget to put family-related items on the family calendar if you also keep a personal calendar, so I recommend scheduling into your daily routines a time to transfer relevant information from your personal calendar to your family calendar. If you keep a digital calendar, this is extremely simple since all you typically have to do is check a box indicating all of the calendars with which you would like to share the appointment.

How do you keep your family on the proverbial “same page”? What routines do you find to be the most helpful? What has worked for your family and what has failed miserably? Thankfully, in our home, we’ve found that the research about routines being beneficial has been accurate. As long as we keep to our routines, life runs much more smoothly than when we don’t. Our home is also at a fairly consistent state of order, which makes having friends over to visit extremely simple and helps to keep our stress levels low.

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.