Archives for Time Management
Years ago I worked as a special needs teacher, creating and implementing educational goals for students with autism and other developmental delays. It was an amazing experience and, in many ways, has affected the way I manage projects and tasks today. A few tricks I learned back then now help to keep me productive and confident, even when my project list is overwhelming.
Break It Down
My students, being individuals, performed best under teaching conditions tailored to their abilities. We’d identify their strengths and areas of need and go from there. I also found that certain methods benefited a large number of students, including the practice of breaking complex tasks down into small, sequential steps. Once the first step was learned, the second step was introduced. After that, the third, fourth, and so on. Eventually, many of our students could perform all of the small steps in succession, thereby completing a larger task. Today, I use this technique when devising the steps that must be completed before I can mark a project as “done.” Here are two examples:
Learning to tie one’s shoe is challenging for most kids. However, the individual steps that lead to a properly tied shoe are simple:
- Hold one lace in each hand.
- Cross the laces to form an “X.”
- Grasp the center of the “X” with the thumb and index finger of the right hand.
- Push the left lace through the opening at the bottom of the “X.”
You get the idea. While “tie your shoes” is tricky, “hold one lace in each hand” is not. The same goes for the projects we must complete in our personal and professional lives. “Get ready for the conference” is complex and possibly overwhelming. If you’re like me, you’ll avoid something so daunting. To make it more manageable, identify some of the steps that must be completed before this project can be marked as “done.”
- Add date and time of conference to calendar.
- Make appointment to have car serviced prior to travel.
- Pre-load travel route on GPS map.
- Brainstorm presentation ideas.
- Devise outline from brainstorm session.
- Review outline, expand upon it.
- Write first draft of presentation.
There are two things to notice here. First, each small task is easily accomplished and leads to the next one. Also notice that every task on the list starts with an action verb.
The key to burning through your to-do list is clearly defining what must be done. “The presentation” is not a good action step. “Write first draft of presentation” is. The difference is that the first word is a verb. In fact, all of the steps listed above start with a verb. Try it when writing your own to-do lists. It’s great to know exactly what must be done.
What is a Project?
David Allen defines a project as “anything that requires more than one action step to be completed” (is my fascination with David Allen obvious yet?). This means that things we might not consider projects actually are projects. In my example above, get ready for the conference, definitely is. But so is getting an oil change for the car or volunteering for a 3rd grade field trip to the beach. Going back to my days as a teacher, I’d break down the oil change project like this:
- Review calendar to identify free days.
- Call favorite mechanic’s shop to make appointment.
- Travel to garage on given day and time.
The beach trip would look like this:
- Confirm availability on target day.
- RSVP to teacher request.
- Buy sunscreen.
- Clean out cooler in basement.
- Gas up the car.
Breaking projects into small, easily achieved tasks is beneficial in many ways. First, it makes a big project seems less daunting. It also allows you to clearly define exactly what must be done, and provides a real sense of being on top of things.
Now that I’m a parent, my schedule has more activites and I seem to continuously be on a quest to find more time. It’s not lost, but it has become more elusive. Rather than run around frantically (which is not a good look for me), I know that I need to rely on simple systems that have worked for me in the past.
Here’s what I’ve been doing to capture a few extra minutes:
- Laundry. Just saying the word laundry makes me want to run and hide. I don’t like that there are so many steps to getting clean clothing. It’s a long but necessary process, so I shorten it by doing smaller loads. That way, I can wash, dry, fold, and put away all clothing in one evening. I don’t have to sort since I use a three compartment hamper to separate the clothing colors ahead of time. This really saves some precious minutes. It also helps to make sure clothing is not inside out before they go in the washer. When they are finished drying, all I have to do is fold and put them away. Did I mention I tend to wear clothing that doesn’t need ironing?
The best thing about doing laundry is that it’s not a task that requires you attend to it the entire time. So, once the clothes are in the machine, I can do something else.
- Dishes. Though I dislike doing dishes, I love seeing an empty sink. I tend to wash dishes right after I’m finished using them. On the occasions that I let them pile up, it often takes too long to get them done. In short, do ‘em as you use ‘em.
- Cooking. While something is simmering or sitting in the oven, I wash the dishes or put away the ones that are already dry. Also, when I’m prepping my ingredients, I keep a bowl on the counter for things that I will eventually throw away. This means I have less spills on the counter to clean up. And, if something does spill, I wipe it up straight away.
- Morning Coffee. My coffee maker turns on automatically at 5:30 am every day and all I have to do is put in a coffee pod when I’m ready for my cup. I also fill up the water reservoir each night before going to bed.
- Keys and Purse. My keys and purse are always hung on a hook next to the door. Other items that I’ll need when leaving the house are set by the door the night before so that I don’t forget them or run around looking for them before leaving.
- Car care. I spend a fair amount of time in my car and am usually eating on the go. Since granola bars and water are often what I have on hand, it’s easy for me to accumulate food wrappers and water bottles. I stop them from taking over my car by simply removing them each time I run an errand (e.g., get gas, go to the bank or market) or once I return home.
These simple steps have been extremely helpful and have kept me from losing my head the past few months. I do, however, need to figure out a way to keep better track of my phone. Since my little one came along, it’s the one thing that I tend to search for the most. I can’t explain this phenomenon. Recently, I’ve been saying a little mantra before I leave any room in the house and when I get in the car: “Do I have my phone?” This strategy seems to be helping and I find that I don’t have to search for it as often.
What do you do to gain more time in your day?
There are many things I want to do and I’ve been known to multitask (as recently as last week!). When time seems elusive, it can be easy to get caught in the trap of doing too many things at once.
Fortunately, I have a simple, three step process that helps me focus on one thing at a time and to be more realistic about how much I can actually accomplish.
Here it is:
- Write a short, specific list
- Create a realistic and reasonable plan
- Select a reward
One of the reasons this process works for me is because I enjoy writing to-do lists, and I usually get more done when I hand write them. I like apps like Toodledo (especially since I can set reminders), but I love crossing tasks off on a paper list. Like Erin, sometimes I put things I’ve already done on my list just so I can put a line through them.
Now that I have spring cleaning on my mind, I’ve created a list for my latest project: organizing the outside of my home. As a new mom, I put more effort in (trying to) keep the inside of my home organized, and there are times that I forget about the outdoor chores. But, now that this is back on my radar, I took a look inside our shed. It has been a bit neglected because we were so focused on the impending arrival of a certain little person. Needless to say, it needs some attention. As I looked around the yard, I also noticed a few other things that were crying out for a some tender loving care.
So, my first step was to make a list of some (not all) of the things I wanted work on. There are several helpful spring cleaning checklists that I could use, however, in this case, I decided to make a short list based on:
- Things I think are important (i.e., need fixing and will make me happy).
- The amont of time it will take for me to complete them.
The short list
Whenever I make a list, I include the top three things needed to complete each task. When I complete a step, I cross it off and move on to the next one until all tasks have been taken care of. I have also used “One Thing” notepads by PrettyBitter.com.
- Re-organize the shed
- Remove obvious trash and recyclables
- Re-organize shelves (keep like items together)
- Sweep and annihilate cobwebs
- Add plants to pots at entry way
- Buy potting soil
- Buy perennials with color (perennials take less time to maintain)
- Plant flowers and water them
The reasonable plan
- I intend to finish all tasks by the end of June. I find that when I have a deadline, the likelihood of finishing my project is high. Without one, I can turn into a waffler.
- I will work in 15-30 minute time blocks three days every week. I would like to work my plan every day, but I doubt I’d be successful at that. Short organizing sessions will give me enough time to get some chores done and still let me do other (unrelated) things.
- I will pick one thing to focus on each day. By focusing on one item, I can keep feelings of overwhelm at bay.
- I will ask for help. When there’s a second person, 15-30 minutes will double, I’d probably get more done, and finish my chores sooner.
- I will think of a nice reward when my project is complete.
The amazing reward
I get little bursts of joy each time I cross something off my list, and I get the personal satisfaction of actually finishing what I set out to do. But, when I choose a fabulous way to pat myself on the back, that helps me get through my list because I have something amazing to look forward to. I think a manicure and a massage are in my near future.
It’s the smallest of improvements that often make the biggest difference in my life. For example, Hallmark made mailing cards significantly easier in February with the release of their postage-paid envelopes.
My sister-in-law sent my son a card in one of these envelopes a few weeks ago and when I saw the envelope with that image printed on it, I actually cheered. (I’m weird, I know.) From Hallmark’s corporate website:
Hallmark Postage-Paid Greetings feature the U.S. Postal Service’s Intelligent Mail barcode on the front of the envelope. When the cards are processed at a Postal Service facility, the barcode automatically indicates to the Postal Service the postage is paid. The postage is treated like a Forever stamp, and its value will always be equal to the price of a standard First-Class stamp, regardless of when it’s mailed.
In the article “Birthday cards and reminder systems” from back in 2007, I wrote about how I buy all my cards for the year at a single time to be more efficient. I’ve also been buying enough Forever stamps to cover all the postage for those cards around the same time. These new pre-paid envelopes make it so I don’t have to worry about the second step in the process. Also, it saves time if I need to pick up a last-minute card at the store — I just sign the card and drop it into any mailbox without having to go to the post office (which, since I haven’t yet bought my supply of cards for the year, I’ve actually done twice in the last week). Hallmark saves me from having to run another errand, and I like not having to run errands.
These new envelopes might not be for everyone, especially if you never mail cards, but for someone like me who sends a lot of cards they’re extremely convenient.
What small improvements have made a big difference in your life recently? Share your finds in the comments.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed and anxious when you have too many responsibilities, too many things on your to-do list, and/or too many emotionally-draining situations going on in your life. It’s also easy to believe that if you could just be more organized, you could stop feeling so exhausted and stressed about these things.
Improved organization may be part of the solution, but rarely is it the entire answer. Similar to when organizing a physical space, you usually have to clear clutter before you can organize what remains. You’ll need to eliminate or delegate activities before you can be more organized and regain control of your time.
- Start saying “no.” At least for the short term, you need to say “no” to as many new responsibilities as possible. Obviously, you can’t say “no” to every request that comes your way, but try your best to keep from adding to your already massive to-do list. For advice on how to decline incoming requests for your time, check out the article “Saying ‘no’” from 2008.
- Get it out of your head. The next thing you need to do is get everything out of your mind and onto a sheet of paper. If you’re like me, you’re not going to remember everything you need to do in a matter of minutes. Carry the paper with you throughout the course of an entire day, and write down things as you remember them. Leave the paper next to your bed as you sleep, and you may even find you wake up with five or ten more items to add to the list the next morning.
- Prioritize your list. Sort your list into four groups: 1. Must get done for risk of losing job/life/significant income; 2. Would be nice to get done and I would enjoy doing the task; 3. Would be nice to get done but I don’t really want to do it; 4. Doesn’t need to get done right now/ever and I don’t really want to do it.
- Eliminate and delegate. Immediately cross everything in group 4 off your list and clear these tasks from your mind. After letting those items go, get to work on all the items in group 3. You’ll want to create exit strategies for all these items, and the more heavy the responsibility the more detailed your exit strategy will need to be. For the heavier items: Wrap up any parts of the project you can easily (and willingly) do, identify someone who might benefit from taking over this responsibility or is better equipped to handle it, delegate this responsibility to that person or request their help with the responsibility, and graciously resign the responsibility to that person. For the lighter items: Simply cross them off your list like you did with items in group 4.
- Create, schedule, and complete action items. Look at the items in group 1 and break them into specific action items. “Clean the house” is a bad action item because it is vague. You want individual items with detailed actions that can be scheduled and completed. For example, “Call Bob the exterminator at (555) 555-5555 to set up an appointment for the afternoon of Saturday, April 21″ or “Scrub the bathtub in the guest room.” Put the action items on your schedule so you know when you will complete the tasks. Be realistic with yourself about how much you can accomplish in one day. Finally, do the action items as they appear on your schedule.
- Sleep and spend 30 minutes in the sun. It’s scientifically proven that it’s more difficult to handle stress when you’re exhausted. For advice on getting the sleep you need, check out the article “A good night’s sleep improves productivity.” Also, get outside for 30 minutes every day to absorb a little Vitamin D and take a mental break from your responsibilities. If the weather is dismal, sit still for 30 minutes and do absolutely nothing.
- Review your progress. After you get some of the group 1 items crossed off your to-do list, you can review your progress and see if you’re at a place to begin adding items from group 2 to your schedule. If you feel significantly less anxious than you did two weeks ago, you may be ready to address one or two items from group 2. If your anxiety levels are still running high, continue to only work on group 1 responsibilities.
- Ask for help. If a month passes, you’ve fully implemented the previous steps, and you’re still overwhelmed, it might be time to call in a professional. Only you will know what type of a professional you need — you could need the help of a time management consultant, a professional organizer, a mental health professional, or something as simple as hiring a neighborhood kid to mow your lawn. Get the help you need to regain control of your time.
If you’re a regular visitor to Unclutterer, you know I have a strange obsession with timers. I’m someone who has a meandering mind and am easily distracted. I’ve been tested for ADHD, and I don’t have it. Therefore, I think the technical term for my concentration issues is normal human. Like most people, I would rather do or think about something fun instead of my not-so-fun responsibilities. Thankfully, there are timers to help you (and me) stay focused and complete tasks — specifically the not-so-fun ones and the ones that have to get done — in reasonable amounts of time.
I use a timer when writing to keep me from wandering around the web. I use a timer when doing chores around the house to see how much I can accomplish in a set amount of time. I use a timer when practicing the piano to make sure I get a good 30 minutes in every day. I use a timer when I’m at the gym, running on the treadmill. I also use a timer when I’m goofing off during work hours, to make sure I’m merely taking a break from my work and not wasting an entire afternoon.
My favorite timer right now is the Time Timer app for the iPhone. I think I paid $2 for it about a year ago. It is extremely convenient and simple to use, especially since my iPhone sits on my desk while I work. There are other screens and colors you can use, but these are the main ones I rely on the most:
I also use the timer on my microwave, the timer on the stove, and a stop watch from my days in middle school track (the thing is at least 25 years old and still going strong). If you use a Windows-based PC, I recommend checking out the XNote Stopwatch program that will even import directly to Excel for time tracking work and calls for client billing.
We recently started using an 8″ Time Timer with audible alerts clock for our son who is young enough that he doesn’t fully comprehend time yet. (The timer, made by the same people as the iPhone app, also comes in 3″ and 12″ versions.) We’ve been using it for things like when we tell him he has five more minutes to play with his cars before dinner.
Do you use timers throughout your day to help you stay on track and be more productive? Do you ever race the clock to see if you can get your daily chores finished in less than 30 minutes? What timers do you use and which are your favorites? Share your advice in the comments.
And, as always, none of the companies paid us or rewarded us in any way to write about their products. We just really like them.
I’m horrible at processing email when I’m traveling for my job. Last month, when I was at the NAPO annual conference, I was once again reminded of my complete inadequacies in this area. I actually thought I had done better this time than usual, but on Monday morning when I sat down at my desk the more than 1,000 emails sitting in my work email account were proof that I had once again failed.
I admitted defeat and immediately sought advice from my friend Nick who works for a hotel chain and travels a good amount for his job. He started by saying, “not gonna lie, it’s tough.”
Want to know what words were oddly comforting to me? It’s tough. If a person who has been on the road a good amount doesn’t have it easy, I guess it makes sense that I wouldn’t have it easy, either.
After talking to Nick, I wrote to more of my friends and eventually posted the following request on Twitter: “Constant work travelers — What are your strategies for processing email when on the road? Share your seasoned advice with me!”
A slew of fantastic advice poured in, and I’m thankful to everyone who responded. Most of the advice identified major themes and philosophies for solving this problem and I’ve summarized this information:
- Tie yourself to a smartphone. If you want to stay on top of email, you have to keep a smartphone on you. Keep the ringer off and the message alerts set to vibrate.
- Enable automatic sorting and color coding in your smartphone’s email program. Have a filter that automatically routes all messages out of your inbox and into separate folders where you are copied instead of listed as the main recipient, all newsletters or read-only emails you subscribe to, and all emails from sources you know are not going to be must-respond-now messages. Have your system color code messages from your boss and/or other very important folks so these messages will catch your attention when they come into your main inbox. (If you’re on a Windows-based phone, there are macros and add-ins for Outlook you can install. If you can legally route your work email through Gmail, you can also do this. I was unable to find an app for the iPhone that enables these features.)
- Check messages during lulls in your schedule. As you wait in the line at the airport, switch between sessions at a conference, or grab a snack, process your priority emails then.
- Only check work email. If someone needs to contact you about an important personal matter, he/she will text or call you. Check your personal email account on weekends or after you get home from traveling.
- Only respond to items that can be handled in less than one minute. Delegate as much as possible, delete or archive anything that doesn’t need a response, and only send short messages of less than a paragraph to the priority emails you respond to.
- Manage expectations. Have an automated out-of-office message enabled on your account that says you will have limited access to emails and no one should expect a response until you are back in the office (be sure to list that specific date). Provide detailed contact information for someone in the office who may be able to handle emergencies, and give that person in the office your cell number so he/she can call you if there is a major event. Also, let your office contact know when you expect to be on flights and/or completely out of connection.
- Manage more expectations. When you reply to someone from your smartphone, have a “Sent from mobile device, please excuse typos and brevity” signature on the bottom of every message. You might also want to consider posting your return date on your out-of-office message as the day after you return so you have a full day to gather your bearings once you’re back in the office. Under promise, over deliver.
- Have access to cloud file storage. Not all smartphones allow you to attach documents, so you’ll need to be able to send links to documents stored online with services like Dropbox. If your employer doesn’t allow file posting online and attaching documents to emails is essential to your job, you’ll want to get the smallest, lightest laptop you can because you’re going to have to carry it with you instead of a smartphone.
- Work on email every night when you get to your hotel room. It will add to your workday, but taking 30 minutes or an hour every night to process the entirety of all your email inboxes and folders will guarantee you don’t have an avalanche of messages when you get back to your office.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that two people said responding to email while traveling for work is futile. One said she looks forward to having days free of the email interruptions and only answers phone calls, and another said he just deletes everything and believes if it’s really important the person will resend the email. I can’t imagine following either method, but certainly understand the sentiment.
Many thanks to Brian Kieffer, Nick Ayres, Tammy Schoch, Jorgen Sundgot, Generating Alpha, Dauerhippo, Courtney Miller-Callihan, Aaron Lilly, Fahryn Hoffman, Zacory Boatright, and Aviva Goldfarb for your advice and contributions to this article. If you’re someone who travels a great amount for work, please share your additional advice in the comments.
Anyone who has stepped foot in a corporate work environment in the past 10 years is familiar with the phrase contingency plan. It’s the piece of your project where you try to determine ahead of time what you and/or your team will do when things go wrong. What will you do if a vendor doesn’t provide the quality of product you expected? What will you do if information is not received on time from the client? What will you do if a member of your team is ill and can’t make it to the sales meeting? What will you do if bad weather leads to your flight being cancelled?
You can drive yourself batty if you create a contingency plan for every possible step of the process that can go off course. A good way to determine if a step of the process needs a contingency plan or not is to estimate how much time it will take you to come up with an alternative if something does go wrong and determine which will be less expensive and a better use of your time: Creating a contingency plan during the project planning stage or simply handling the solution on the fly if/when a problem develops? If it is less expensive to create a contingency plan before you start work on a project than it is to solve the problem on the fly, do it. If it is more expensive to create a contingency plan before you start work on a project than it is to solve the problem on the fly, don’t do it. If it will save you time and money to come up with a contingency plan for a backup conference location if a hurricane destroys your conference hotel, create a contingency plan for an alternative site location. If it will waste your time and money to come up with a contingency plan for an alternate restaurant to deliver dinner to you at your desk on Tuesday night when you’re working late, don’t create a contingency plan. In short, the more important the element is to your project, the more likely you are to need a contingency plan.
Large projects aren’t the only areas of your work experience that can benefit from contingency planning. When you sit down at your desk first thing in the morning, you probably review and create a list of tasks you would like to accomplish by the end of the day. This list of action items might include meetings to attend, calls to make, emails to return, research to compile, writing assignments and all the other work specific to your job. To aid in your productivity, it is important to note what actions must get done by the end of the day so you don’t lose your job, and prioritize those important actions.
Even when you’re diligent and focused on getting your entire action list completed, unexpected events can derail you — the fire alarms can sound in the building or your building’s power can be disrupted or another work priority can take top billing. When the actions you must finish don’t get done, you have to go with an alternate plan.
The best contingency plan is one where you never need a contingency plan, but deadlines and botched work days are unavoidable in most workplaces. In lieu of avoidance, these are the common contingency plans I recommend employing when you must get things done and you’re behind schedule –
- Prevention: Block open time on your schedule. Not all industries allow for this, but in my current job I can usually leave 30 minutes each afternoon blank on my schedule. I almost always have something pressing to finish during this time, but if I don’t I use it for mindless work like filing or brainstorming blog post ideas. These open 30 minutes help me to better handle the unexpected disruptions over the course of the day.
- Power through. Obviously, you have the option to stay late and work into the night to finish your activities. This isn’t always an option, though, especially if the deadline was earlier in the day or if you need to be somewhere more pressing. It’s also not an option if you have been staying late for weeks and your overall productivity is being hampered by your late nights. Some employers allow you to take work home, and when done occasionally this might be a solution for you.
- Communicate and negotiate new deadlines. The minute you know you’re behind schedule and likely to miss the deadline, you need to communicate this to the people who are depending on you and negotiate a new deadline. You may need to update your project manager, boss, and/or client so they can adjust their schedules accordingly. The earlier you can notify individuals of your delay, the better. Sometimes estimations for how long something will take are wrong and this isn’t going to change through the entire project. Advanced communication about delays, when done infrequently and when you really are in dismay, can help you to be seen as a valued and trusted worker.
- Ask for help. If your job and work product allow for it, ask for help from coworkers or assistants. (In most workplace environments, making a request of another’s time does mean that you should help that person at a future point if your assistance is requested.) I’ve been in jobs where we’ve hired temporary employees to help prepare for conferences doing activities that must get done but don’t require special skill sets to complete. Simply requesting your boss help you to set new priorities can be an effective activity if you have a mentoring-style relationship with your boss.
- Delegate. Similar to asking for help, but in an environment where it is appropriate for you to assign work to others. Or, if you realize you are not the best person to complete the job, you can outsource the work to a person with the right skill set.
What common contingency plans do you employ when your work day and deadlines are blown to bits? Please share your strategies in the comments.
Reader James submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
I’ve read productivity books and articles that claim checking email first thing at work is a bad idea. I have been burned by not checking it because my boss and clients sent me important messages overnight and I didn’t get them until two hours later. What is your take on checking email? Is my overall productivity worth the times I’ve been burned?
I can see the reasoning behind not checking your email right when you get to work — you run the risk of getting caught up in work that might not be extremely important to your job responsibilities at a time when you’re likely at your most focused and productive. It would be better if you could use your best brain power on your most demanding and core work.
That being said, I check my email first thing when I get into work. I don’t really address it, though, I simply scan all the “from” and “subject” lines to search for work-altering messages. If I don’t see any indicators that someone sent me an email that will change my most demanding and core work, I immediately close my mail program and wait until I need a break from my demanding work around 10:00 a.m.
If I click on a message, read it, and discover it didn’t affect my immediate work day, I mark the message as “unread” so it can hang out until I process email in a couple hours.
If I click on a message, read it, and discover it does affect my immediate work, I’ll process the email the same way I do when I’m really handling email. This means I’ll file it as Archived, add related next actions to my to-do list, and/or schedule any related information on my calendar. If I need to reply to the email, I do it at this time. After giving proper attention to the email, I’ll scan the rest of the inbox to see if there is anything else I must check. If I’m done with my quick search, I’ll quit the program and wait to address the other issues at 10:00 a.m.
I chose my times for checking email based on when I do my mindful and mindless work over the course of the day — scan at 8:00 a.m., full check at 10:00 a.m., full check after lunch around 1:00 p.m., a scan around 3:00 p.m., and then a final end-of-workday check at 5:00 p.m. I do not have my new message indicator light on my email program activated, and I actually completely close out of the program when not in use. If your job allows you to behave in this manner, I strongly recommend it. It significantly helps my productivity to not be tempted to check email constantly.
Thank you, James, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.
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Reader Cat submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
I have read your book and your blog (including the recent post about establishing routines), I feel that your advice for scheduling routines is most applicable to individuals with regular office jobs, or more generally individuals who have a more control over their work schedules. I was wondering if you had any creative ideas for implementing routines on a more erratic schedule?
Nurses and doctors working in hospitals, firefighters, police officers, and food service industry employees are just a few of many professionals who don’t work traditional hours or schedules. In addition to the stress caused by varied sleep schedules and the demands of the job, it can be more difficult to get work done around the house than it can for people on more traditional schedules. (This isn’t always the case, but it certainly can be.)
Using a prioritized list of actions broken into times of day and days of the week is one way you can master regular chores when you work on a constantly varying schedule.
Start by making a list of all the routine activities that need to be done over the course of a week. Then, next to each item you’ve listed, note if the task has to be done during a specific time or can only be completed on specific days of the week (for example, your local grocery store may only be open certain hours or if you live with people on a traditional schedule you probably shouldn’t vacuum the floor at 3:00 in the morning). Next, prioritize the tasks by what has to get done (like feeding the pets), what should get done (laundry), and what is nice to get done but the house won’t fall apart if you don’t get to it every week (dusting). After this, write down approximately how long you need to dedicate to each task.
Once you have all of this information listed, create a new list (or a chart) where things are grouped by time of day and days of the week. Almost all of your tasks will appear multiple times on your list since there is no guarantee you’ll be home at the same time each week. For example, doing the dishes might be listed in every time slot since there usually isn’t a problem with doing them at any time of the day or week. After you’ve made your list (or chart), laminate it and get a dry erase marker.
Then, if you are home and awake on a Monday morning, you can look at your list and immediately see what tasks you can do on a Monday morning. Based on how much time and energy you have, you can select the chores to do from that section. Just remember to always do the highest priority tasks first. When the chore is finished, cross it off the list with your dry erase marker. If the chore is only a once-a-week task, also cross it off the list wherever it appears in other places on your list. If the next time you’re home isn’t until Wednesday evening, go back to your list and take care of the items listed as possible tasks in the Wednesday evening column and then cross them off your list. At the start of the next week, erase all your dry erase marker writing and begin working through your list again.
I also recommend you have a coming home routine in place that you work through every time you come home. This should include sorting mail, putting away anything you brought with you (hang up coat, put keys in key holder, etc.), getting things set in a way so it will be easy to leave your house when you need to go, and whatever else you need to do every single time you walk in the house. This repetitive behavior will help you keep on track, too.
Thank you, Cat, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments sections for even more ideas from our readers for how they have successfully mastered home routines on an uncertain schedule — or have witnessed someone else doing them. Good luck to you, I know a varied schedule can be difficult.
Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.
In my experience, routines are an essential component to an uncluttered life. Without a few minutes of dedicated work each day, housework and clutter quickly build up and create stress. Small steps each day keep everything under control and ultimately give you more free time to focus on the things that matter most to you.
Fifteen years ago, I was someone who let things fall apart during the week and then spent a good portion of my Saturdays cleaning up all the messes I had made during the week. This meant that every Saturday morning and some afternoons were wasted. I couldn’t meet friends for brunch or read a book or whatever relaxing task I would have rather been doing. When I traveled over a weekend, it meant that I returned home to a place as messed up as I had left it and then I would have two weeks’ worth of cleanup to do the next Saturday. It also meant I would never have people over during the week because dirty dishes would be on the kitchen counter, dirty clothes would be spilling out of my hamper, and so many other things would be in disarray. During the week, everything was not in its place.
After my initial uncluttering and organizing spree, I knew I had to change my ways and figure out new daily routines to keep my home and office organized. I won’t lie to you, it took a lot of practice, and there are times now when I’ll miss a day here and there. Overall, though, daily routines have made maintaining an organized life incredibly simple and I no longer carry stress about the state of my home. That feeling of calm is very important to me now, and I have no desire to abandon it.
Since we’ve talked a great deal on the site about creating routines (e.g. articles 1, 2, 3), I won’t go into too much detail in this post about that stage of the process. However, I do want to discuss when to do the actions on your routines list.
We all have different times of the day when we have energy to do chores and when we don’t. Our motivation levels change throughout the day, too. Knowing yourself and when you are most likely to get daily chores done is key to choosing when to do your routines.
- Before work. I function my best in the morning, and only want to do relaxing stuff after the sun goes down. As a result, I have to do the majority of my housework in the morning before sitting down at my desk to work. The same is true for my husband, so we unload the dishwasher, put a load of laundry into the washer, and put away stray items from around the house before we start work. We do these chores in addition to bathing and getting ready, getting our son fed and ready for his day, and eating breakfast and cleaning up the kitchen afterward. It means we have early mornings, but it also means our evenings are relaxing and light on chores. (Since we both work from home, we put the laundry in the dryer around 10:00 a.m. and then fold it and put it away during our lunch break.)
- Throughout the day. If you work from home, you can set up chores to take place for 10 minutes every couple hours to give you a break from work. This is much more difficult to do if you work in an office.
- Immediately after work. If you’re not a morning person, I strongly recommend doing your daily routines right when you get home from work. This way, once you’re done with dinner, you can relax and focus on doing what matters to you. Plus, you’re more likely to have energy at 5:30 p.m. (or whenever you get home) than you are closer to when you go to bed.
- After dinner. If everyone in your family comes home at different times, daily routines might have to be completed after dinner when everyone is in the house and can lend a hand. You’re more likely to avoid your routines because you’re tired, but if you have the motivation you can still get them done. My friend Julie reports that she will incorporate her daily chores into her nightly television watching. Instead of fast-forwarding through commercials with her DVR, she lets them play and races to get a chore done while the commercials play.
Try doing your daily routines at different times to determine which one works best for you. When do you have the most energy and motivation to do the little stuff you need to do every day, so you can spend the majority of your time doing what matters to you?
Most of us joyfully said goodbye to homework when we left school. I certainly was glad to see it go, especially the busy-work stuff that didn’t serve any point except to waste a lot of time.
Recently, I’ve had a change of heart, at least when it comes to self-imposed homework. I’ve had some success with giving myself homework assignments related to my uncluttering and organizing projects. When I structure the homework more like a lesson plan than a to-do list, I can better remember why I’m doing work and stay focused on the end goal.
What I do:
- Identify the unit objective. What is a unit objective? In this case, it’s going to be the reasons you want to unclutter and/or organize. Your objective might be that you want to have friends come over unannounced and not have to worry that your place is a mess. Your objective might be that you don’t want to injure yourself constantly tripping over your child’s toys. Your objective might be that you want to downsize to a smaller home to reduce your mortgage and other expenses.
- Identify your deadline. Do you have a solid goal by when the work needs to be completed? If you don’t have a set deadline, can you create an artificial one to help motivate you?
- Identify current status. Where are you right now? This is a good time to photograph the room, desk, closet or area you wish to unclutter and/or organize to record your starting point.
- Identify action items. Analyze your current status and determine all the work that needs to be completed for you to successfully meet your unit objective. Be specific with these actions. “Organize shelf” is not specific enough. Use language that expresses exactly what you plan to do — “Pull all items off shelf, sort items into three piles (keep, purge, other), etc.”
- Create your timeline. Using your deadline as a guide, distribute action items onto your calendar. Do this in pencil or electronically, so you can easily move items if necessary. Always leave a few nights before the deadline open in case you fall behind schedule. If you stay on schedule, you’ll be rewarded by finishing the unit early.
- Do your homework. Roll up your sleeves and get to work. Do the homework you’ve set for yourself for each night, and don’t make any excuses. You’re working toward a goal you desire and you want to reach.
- Assess your progress. Decide if you want to review your work daily, weekly, or only at the end of the unit. Personally, I like to give myself daily grades (my system is simple: A is 4 points=did the work; F is 0 points=didn’t do the work). At the end of the week I’ll see how many points I’ve earned and keep a tally (20 points is an ideal week, only working Monday-Friday).
I’ve started to think of my on-going house routines in this way, too. My objective is to keep the house running smoothly so I think less about chores and the state of the house, and more time on doing fun stuff with my family. To meet this objective, there are certain tasks I must do every day (homework) for this to happen. The chores are spread out over a week, and each day I can easily assess my performance — did the homework, or didn’t.
The reason I believe this method works for me is it keeps me focused on the objectives and it’s easy to see how the work I’m doing is directly related to those objectives. Chores and uncluttering and organizing tasks seem less like busy-work and more as steps to something I really desire in my life.
Could you use a little homework in your life? Share your reactions and methods you employ in the comments.
According to the National Association of Professional Organizers, the phrase “get organized” is one of the top 10 resolutions people make every year. I’m not really sure how to validate this information, but my guess is that some version of “get organized” falls on the majority of resolution lists (“get the basement organized” or “have better time management”). If you add uncluttering into the “get organized” category, it’s likely a top 5 resolution.
If you fall into the group of resolution makers who wants to be better organized in 2012, the first thing to do is specifically identify why you want to be organized. Being organized isn’t usually a goal. Being organized is merely a path to achieving another goal. For instance, you might want to be better organized with your time after work so you finally get your business idea off the ground. You might want to be more organized with meal planning so you have less stress surrounding mealtimes with your family. Knowing why you want to be organized will help you with the remaining steps of the resolution-making process and with ultimately achieving your goals.
While brainstorming resolutions and the reasons you wish to make your resolutions, keep in mind that change is difficult and that research has found that it is easiest to achieve a goal when you’re only focusing on one at a time. This means you need to have 12 or fewer personal resolutions for 2012, giving yourself at least one month to focus on each resolution. If you have a resolution such as weight loss, and you want to be better organized with your meal planning to help you achieve that resolution, consider making your weight-loss resolution a six month or even an entire year-long resolution. You can focus on each step to help you achieve the weight loss each month — research and doctor’s visit in January, journaling food consumed and daily weight in February, meal planning in March, twice-a-week workouts with a personal trainer in April, four-times-a-week workouts on your own in May, etc.
After you have identified why you want to be more organized and have a rough idea of the resolutions you wish to achieve, your next step is to create a detailed plan of action. This Resolution Action Plan should include very specific language and planning. You need to identify exactly what you want to do in concrete terms and then the exact steps of how you plan to achieve these steps. Create milestones — small goals — for each resolution and rewards you will give to yourself when you reach each milestone.
Similar to last year, I will be taking on 12 monthly resolutions in 2012. Some of the resolutions are organizing and uncluttering related, but most are personal in nature, so I won’t be writing about them the way I did in 2011. I will check in with you over the course of the year, however, to see how you are doing with your resolutions and to provide tips for making and keeping your 2012 Resolution Action Plan. What resolutions do you have on your Plan for 2012? Good luck, and I wish you great resolution success in the coming year.
It’s the Monday before Thanksgiving in the U.S. and if you’re at work, it’s very likely your brain isn’t. Oh look, Sharon from accounting brought in doughnuts! I really should talk about the game/movie I saw this weekend with ALL my coworkers! Now is a great time to make my holiday wish list! Shiny!
On a philosophical level, your employer is paying you to do a job, so you probably should be doing something work related. If you don’t have it in you to focus on creating a viable work product right now, consider doing a little mindless work that supports your work functions:
- File. Put on headphones (if they are acceptable in your workplace), and start putting papers away where they belong. If all your papers are filed, review your files to make sure you’re not keeping any information that doesn’t need to be archived. Organize your papers so that they help you do your job.
- Review your bulletin board. How recent are all those items hanging on the walls of your cubicle or bulletin board? Can you easily see all of the most vital information? Is the calendar from two years ago? Is there anything that can come down or be replaced?
- Clean your phone and work surface. When was the last time you scrubbed either? The dust bunnies behind your monitor aren’t going to clean themselves.
- Enter information off business cards. If you’ve recently acquired business cards from important contacts, enter the data into your address book.
- Backup your computer. If it’s not done automatically, now is a great time to backup the information off your computer’s hard drive. Be sure to follow your employer’s system for doing this task.
- Unclutter your bookshelves. Do you have any out-dated manuals or irrelevant reading materials taking up space on your bookshelves? Now is a great time to recycle, shred, or remove these items from your office.
- Equipment check. Are you using all of your equipment in your office? Is it in its best possible shape? Could you benefit more by knowing how to better operate the equipment you do have? Make a request to have the item serviced or take the time to read the operator’s manual or get rid of anything you don’t use.
- Restock. Do you need more tape, more pens, more notepads, or any more office supplies? Go “shopping” in the supply closet if you do.
Mindless work often gets a bad reputation as “not working,” but the reality is that you need some down time to let your brain process all that mindful work you are usually doing. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that “alternating between mindful work (work that requires intense thought and focus) and mindless work (routine activities that require very little processing power) enhances your efficiency and creativity.” In the end, a little mindless work might actually help you do a better job at producing your mindful work — I call that a win-win.
I’m fighting a cold and it’s making writing difficult today. My fingers feel heavy. My mind refuses to focus. And Coffee, my trusted sidekick, isn’t being very helpful. (I expect more from you, Coffee!)
If I worked in a traditional office environment, I would take today off from work or telecommute so as not to share this cold bug with my co-workers. Since I’m already working from home, and my husband is likely the person responsible for giving me this ick, I’m at my desk “working.”
Cold and flu are good buddies with the cooler temperatures of fall. In addition to actual illnesses, you may have a bit of malaise that is brought on by grey skies and drizzling, cold rains. Many of us will have days like this in the coming weeks when climbing back into bed instead of suiting up for work is incredibly tempting.
These tips will help you to get back to your regular self as quickly as possible:
- Prevention — Do your best to keep up your energy levels to avoid getting sick or coming down with a case of the blahs. Get adequate sleep, fuel your body with healthful food, exercise (a 45-minute walk three or four times a week is a good starting point if you don’t already have a regular workout routine), and keep stress to a minimum, if possible.
- If you are genuinely sick, stay home. There are no awards to be given to the person who comes to work sick and infects the entire staff. And, thanks to technology, most workers can do their jobs completely or partially from home. Even if you don’t check a single voice mail or reply to an email, you’re still benefitting your entire team by not giving them your cold or flu. By taking care of yourself, you’re also improving your chances of getting healthier more quickly.
- Go to the doctor if you have something that worries you or has been lingering around longer than it should. Doctors are not something to fear, they’re simply people who chose to go to medical school the same way you chose to be a teacher, programmer, project manager, or whatever it is that you do. If you don’t like your doctor, find a new one. Your health should be your top priority — without it, you can’t attend to any other of your responsibilities. And, if you are diagnosed with something major, the earlier you catch it you’re also improving your chances of getting healthier more quickly.
- If you only have a case of the malaise, doldrums, or the blahs, do something nice for someone else. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture — write a loved one a letter, volunteer at your favorite charity, put quarters in someone’s expired parking meter, take care of a mundane task for a coworker, or surprise your neighbor by mowing his lawn — just a small act of generosity, expecting nothing in return, will do. I’m not sure why it works, but it has always been my perfect cure.
- When trying to work while not feeling your best, remember to stay properly hydrated, take frequent breaks, and consider using a timer to help keep your focus on work for short bursts of time (10 minutes may be all you can muster). Also, keep as many external distractions to a minimum as possible since your internal distractions will be worse than normal.