Uncluttering your personal time

An acquaintance of mine recently told me about a problem she is having in her retirement. After decades of working and thinking, “I’ll have time for that when I retire,” she’s now overwhelmed by all the things she promised herself she would do with her free time and resources.

I read about the injustices in the world — now that I have time to read — and I want to help out in all of the causes. I want to give my time, energy, and money to help others. But there are so many causes, so many people in need, and I can’t possibly give to all of them.

Her home is primarily uncluttered, yet her dining room table is piled high with magazine articles, donation solicitations, and printouts from websites detailing organizations, people, and causes in need. Her heart and good intentions are pulled in numerous directions. Most of us face similar situations in our lives — maybe not with looking for ways to help charitable causes but how to spend our personal time.

I gave her the following advice, and I suggest the following for anyone who feels pulled in too many directions.

  1. Take the time to reflect on and determine what matters most to you. We’ve written about this process before, and I believe it is the most important step to determining how best to spend your time.
  2. Choose ONE opportunity that aptly reflects what matters most to you to account for 80 percent of your available resources. Out of all of the possibilities that stand in front of you, pick the one thing that you feel comfortable making a true commitment to.
  3. Budget the remaining 20 percent of your resources (time, money, whatever it is that you wish to commit) for all other projects that are in line with what matters most to you. For example, if you have $1,000 to donate to charity every year, $800 will go to the ONE organization and $200 might be distributed in $20 gifts to 10 other charities.
  4. Stick to this arrangement for at least six months. Give yourself a decent chunk of time to commit to the new system. After six months you will be able to re-evaluate and decide how to proceed into the future.

In this list, I give the example of budgeting money, but you can budget your time just as easily. Commit to volunteering eight hours a week at the local animal shelter, one hour to your grandchild’s PTA, and one hour to sorting food at the food bank. Or, maybe you have a young family and you’ll commit eight hours a week to coaching your son’s soccer team, one hour to a professional organization, and one hour to a committee for your neighborhood association.

(With my job, I try to budget 80 percent of my time to writing and 20 percent of my time to administration. It doesn’t always happen, but I’ve found that focusing the majority of my work day on the most important aspect of my job makes it more enjoyable and more productive.)

If you look at the situation as “what do I get to do” instead of “what don’t I get to do,” it makes saying no to other opportunities simpler. You stop feeling overwhelmed and your attention is focused on what matters most to you.

14 Comments for “Uncluttering your personal time”

  1. posted by Barbara Tako on

    Personal time management is a tough subject because your time is your life, so it quickly becomes a discussion about life management and goals and priorities. I really liked your point in the last paragraph. To me it takes a positive attitude and says “focus on what matters to you” and “stop worrying about all the other stuff out there.”

  2. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    There will always be need in the world, there will always be worthy causes. I think your method is a great one if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the numbers.

    If you’re not a naturally self analytical type of personality, though, you can do good simply by picking a worthy cause by any means:
    Give of yourself to a cause that your best friend supports.
    Give to a cause that has helped you or a family member.
    Give to a cause that doesn’t annoy you with fundraising efforts. I don’t like being solicited over the phone, and won’t give to groups who do that.

    Any reasonable method to unparalyze yourself is a good one. To slightly reframe Barbara’s last comment, I say focus on what you can do and not what you can’t.

  3. posted by Michele Connolly, Get Organized Wizard on

    I agree with you, Erin – the key to effective time management is how well our *use* of time reflects our priorities. Time-saving tips and strategies are secondary to that principle.

    The problem for many of us is that we aren’t sure what our priorities are…

    Michele 🙂

  4. posted by Martha on

    If you give $20 to eight charities, in response you’ll get eight batches of solicitations for more money in your mailbox every few weeks. Eventually each of the charities will probably spend a good part of your $20 mailing you and sending you things hoping you’ll increase your donation. I think it would simplify things for both you and the charities to give all the money to a limited number of causes.

  5. posted by Dawn F on

    Perhaps this is an odd idea, but to keep myself focused on 1 or 2 charities I adopt the following theory:

    What 1 or 2 charitable organizations would I want my friends and family to donate to in my memory/honor if I were to die? I know that might sound totally weird, but it forces me to REALLY consider what charities deeply touch my heart. There are so many amazing charities that do wonderful things and in this economy they are more desperate than ever for help – money, time and effort – so I use my theory above to help me concentrate my efforts and $$ on a select few.

    Erin – I love your last paragraph in your article. That’s a great way to unclutter your mind and heart. I encourage my son to live by that motto, too!

  6. posted by Magchunk on

    As a professional fundraiser (yes, I decide what goes in those dreaded solicitaions), I appreciate this method. We really appreciate our donors who are invested and want to get involved, come to dinners designed to honor our donors, etc. If you’re more involved, everyone gets more out of your gift (you included!).

    To Martha, yes we will mail to people who have donated (and I know some org’s are particularly pushy), but even if I mail 8 times a year to a donor, I’m likely only spending about $2.00 on them. Each mail piece costs mere cents to produce and mail at non-profit rates. You can always ask an organization what percent of your gift goes directly to the programs and what is spent on admin costs. Of course, keep in mind that it costs money to raise money! Just like any business expense.

  7. posted by Catherine Cantieri, Sorted on

    I love the application of the Pareto Principle to volunteering and donating!

    Martha, you’re right; giving to one charity seems to trigger an influx of mail from other charities. I wonder if there’s any way to prevent that or request that your whole donation go to a particular program or something?

  8. posted by Vern Gillespie on


    I have had the privilege to work virtually with many NGO’s around the world assisting them with satellite phones. Whenever someone tells me about a charity I refer that person to http://www.charitynavigator.org. One charity called Medical Teams International, http://www.medicalteams.org only has an overhead of 3.4%. Very frugal charities are out there.

    If your friend has a particular interest then perhaps she can volunteer for a group that helps multiple charities. The group I volunteer with called http://www.humaninet.org has helped over 100 NGO’s in 40 countries. Fortunately when I volunteer with this type of organization I feel I am able to help out lots of very wonderful causes at the same time. I applaud your friend and her desire to volunteer as there are many wonderful fiscally frugal organizations that assist people with sanitation, clean water, energy, healthcare, technology, micro credit and other causes in the United States and around the world.

  9. posted by Darla Pearson on

    When deciding on charities in which to donate money, it is a good idea to check your state attorney general website. Most charities have to register with the state attorney general in order to legally collect funds, my state’s website also tells the percentages that actually go to the cause and how much is taken by other costs. I realize that there has to be some cost, but 99% in one case was too much. If I donated $100, then only $1 was going to help the cause. (Some charitable campaigns actually end up costing the charity!)

    Be careful when making donations. Make sure the funds are being used for what you intended.

  10. posted by procrastinating librarian « adj.librarian on

    […] If my brand of librarianship was old school, and I wasn’t hooked up to a pc all day long, I’d accomplish so much more. Yet, being hooked up puts word processing at my fingertips and I type so much faster than I write […]

  11. posted by Speedlinking – August 19, 2009 « Thoughts of Resurrection on

    […] Sound advice at Uncluttering your personal time […]

  12. posted by Random collection o’ links mostly « Making time for sex (or spankings) on

    […] Can this be applied to my free time after school/homework and make more time for US? […]

  13. posted by The Simple Dollar » The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Agricola Edition on

    […] Uncluttering your personal time Time attracts clutter just as much as space does. In each case, it’s really the same problem – you find yourself gradually filling your time and space with things that are unimportant to you. To declutter, start cutting out the things that are unimportant! It takes some time and reflection, but the rewards are tremendous. (@ unclutterer) […]

  14. posted by Tyler Karaszewski on

    Your numbers seem completely arbitrary. Why 80/20 and not 70/30 or 60/40? Why not 100% towards the most important thing? How is life any more uncluttered if you still have just as many things you have to keep track of, only now in 20% of your time rather than 100%? You’re still juggling just as many charities and causes. You might as well unclutter your house by cramming all your extra stuff into 20% of your rooms. It’s not really a solution.

    Donating time to charity is nothing at all like putting aside 20% of your work time for administrative tasks. You do administrative tasks at work because you *need* to. You wouldn’t put any time at all towards it if it wasn’t necessary. You donate time to charity because you *want* to. Trying to find time for all the things you want to do is a completely different problem than forcing yourself to make time for all the things you have to do.

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