Unfinished business

The inbox on my desk is currently overflowing. I returned from traveling two weeks ago, dumped a stack of must-complete paperwork out of my briefcase and into the inbox, and immediately started to ignore the mess I’d made. The inbox ceased to be an inbox and became a Black Hole of Forgotten Items.

The situation with my inbox is similar to how most messes begin in our house and in my work. When a mess occurs it is usually because:

  1. I’m in the process of doing something and am interrupted before I can finish the action. For example, I’ll be sorting through the mail, the phone will ring, I’ll set the mail down when I go to answer the phone, and a week later I’ll find a stack of old mail sitting in whatever strange location I dumped it.
  2. I don’t take the time to do something properly because I don’t really want to work on the entire task. I’ll do the enjoyable or easy part (dump all the paperwork into the inbox), but stop short of taking care of the problem (processing the paperwork).
  3. I start a task when it’s impossible to finish the task because of time limitations or situation. For example, I’ll check my voicemail when I’m sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office — I might be able to listen to one or two messages before the nurse calls me out of the waiting room, but I certainly don’t have time nor is it appropriate for me to return any of the calls right then.

Once a mess has started, I’ll either become immune to it (stepping over the unpacked luggage each time I go to the washing machine) or feel stress and anxiety about it (I have so much to do! Did I remember to write down that I have to call Margaret back?). My space is cluttered and my thoughts are often cluttered, too, simply because I didn’t finish what I had started.

Over the years, I’ve learned to deal with most of these messes before they happen. A few sneak up from time-to-time, as has happened with my inbox this January, but I tend to have fewer messes in my life because the mess never gets started. Here are many of the things I do to prevent the mess:

  • Limit interruptions. It is impossible to prevent all interruptions, but you can reduce them. Turn off the ringer on your phone or set it to “Do Not Disturb.” Turn off new message notification sounds on your computer and mobile devices. Put a sign on your office door or hang a sign in an obvious place of your cubical requesting that you not be disturbed except for emergencies for a limited time period. If corporate culture permits, wear earphones even if you aren’t listening to music. Hire a babysitter for a few hours to watch your children while you tackle a project that requires focus at home.
  • At work and at home, create standardized to-do lists and routines. In case you have to abandon a project, you’ll at least cycle back through it the following day and finish it then. Also, get in the habit of writing everything down in a central location — on your mobile phone or in a day planner or a notebook.
  • Before starting any important task, ask yourself, “Do I have enough time and is the situation appropriate for me to complete this task?” If you don’t have enough time to finish a project, ask yourself, “Do I at least have enough time to do what I can and clean up before moving onto something else and leave things so the project does get finished?” If you answer “no” to both these questions, don’t start working on something.
  • If you can do something right now, do it. When returning home from vacation, immediately unload your dirty clothes directly into the washing machine and unpack the rest of your luggage within minutes of walking in the door. If you can file a piece of paperwork as quickly as it would take you to drop it into your inbox, simply file the piece of paperwork.
  • Avoid having catch-all drawers, bins, and bags. If you’re going to need something from the catch-all container, it’s best to have the items organized in a way so that dumping all the contents onto the floor isn’t the easiest way to find something. Large toy chests are horrible because kids have to dump out all the toys to find the one item they want.
  • Create kits. Kits can sometimes lead to duplicate items (you may end up owning four pairs of scissors), but they’re extremely useful in that all of the things you need to accomplish a task are easily accessed and easily stored after use. Sewing kits, gift wrapping kits, scrapbooking kits, house-cleaning kits, car-cleaning kits, etc., make doing certain tasks more efficient and less messy.

What do you do to prevent messes from starting in your home and office? How do you always finish what you start? Share your strategies in the comments.

21 Comments for “Unfinished business”

  1. posted by Jodi on

    I keep all our laundry sorted…Daughter borrows her sisters socks? When they come off that night they go into SISTER’s dirty laundry basket.

    Yep, we have duplicate baskets.

    Nope, I am never more than a day behind on laundry, because everyone has an assigned day. There might be 10 loads of laundry on any given day, but if its Friday, its the baby’s diapers and blankets that get washed, and that’s it. The rest waits until the assinged day cycles around.

    I also threw away all mismatched socks when I started this…and gave away all pairs of socks. We started from scratch; all new socks, all one style. I used fabric markers to write everyone’s name on the bottom of their sock (so the name cannot be seen if standing because it is facing the floor). I did this thinking it would be easier to sort socks that got mismatched…What ACTUALLY happened is my husband and I were able to identify the problem (i.e. daughter #2 always leaves socks in the bathroom…daughter #1 always leaves them in the living room, and #3 picks hers up consistently). By knowing WHO belonged to the random socks we found we knew HOW to focus our efforts.

    I love our laundry system!

  2. posted by Sherri on

    The last one helped me out the most. We have about 6-8 pairs of scissors in our house and it means that there is always a set nearby, they have a clear and permanent home and since they are close, they are easy to return to their home.

    If I have to drop something to come back to, I leave it somewhere obvious like the middle of the bed or on the stair landing where I will come across it again really soon and will have to move it. Leaving things somewhere I don’t often travel (like by the basement washer or dryer) is a recipe for disaster, might be a week before I cross that path again…..

  3. posted by Jessica @ Faith Permeating Life on

    If I need to take a break from working on something, I make sure that I’ve left things in such a way that I can pick them right back up when I sit down again. This might mean leaving myself notes about what page or section I was editing or writing the title of a new section even if I don’t have time to write the section itself. I’m less likely to abandon a half-finished project entirely if it’s all set up and easy for me to get back into.

  4. posted by Annie on

    A big mess preventer for us is to do a little maintenance each day. A quick 5-10 minute pick-up does wonders to prevent stuff from taking over our home.

    Also, our daughter’s toys are limited to only her bedroom or the living room and must be picked up each day. That keeps us from having toys strewn from one end of the house to the other.

  5. posted by Sarah on

    I agree about the putting the washing in the machine straight away etc-but didn’t do it this new year, instead stepping over the case for three days! Done now though! I don’t always do lists but I have a kind of ongoing list in my head. I roughly plan blocks of time to do things over the week and try to stick to this-home and work stuff included. I always do some form of tidying, housework etc for at least half an hour when I get in so it does not always build up a big mess for the weekend.
    My art and craft stuff is mainly in clear boxes. I try to have all the things of the same sort in the same place-all my paintbrushes, all my inks, stamps etc in the same place. I have come a long way with this but still have a long way to go! When I have used a resource I try to put it away as soon as possible, otherwise my kitchen table ends up looking like the table of a confused multi crafter. Oh, hang on a minute, my kitchen table looks like the table of a confused multi crafter!

  6. posted by Lizzie on

    Avoid the catch-all drawers? I’m so impressed with that as an idea! I’m not there yet, but here’s what works for me: I know my major clutter areas (a small shelf in the den for all of my daughter’s stuff, a drawer in the laundry room, a basket–also in the laundry room where I stick paper stuff that I haven’t dealt with yet and a bag which I use to move stuff upstairs–or downstairs–that hasn’t been put away yet) and they all get dealt with every Sunday. Not ideal, but it’s a start…

    A good thing/bad thing is that I have someone who cleans for us every other week. Great (for obvious reasons) but I have to plan things so that I’m not cramming some halfway done project in the closet because it’s cleaning day.

  7. posted by Verity on

    I’m excited about this post and about implementing some of the ideas. I’m a work at home Mom with a 1 year old, 2 1/2 year old, and baby #3 due in 5 months.

    I couldn’t tell where the messes came from sometimes. The house would be clean in the morning – then I’d get stuck on the phone with our business – then 6 more interruptions- then it seemed like – poof –>mess. Then things get left a couple days…weeks…while you try desperately to catch up! Meanwhile more interruptions, and more things that you would rather not do get pushed aside.

    I think that this post seems to explain the ‘invisible process’ that happens when messes are forming!

    Thank you for bringing ‘the process’ out into the open! I’m seriously printing out this article and putting it on my otherwise empty frig to help me not miss the signs of impending mess!

  8. posted by Heather B. on

    I’ve implemented this laundry system:
    Tues-white and lights (using Clorox 2 non clorine bleach)
    Wed – towels
    Thurs – sheets
    Fri – shirts

    I’ve put the laundry after a trip’ haven’t put my suitcase away so quick as we get home and it’s time for dinner or a snack and guess who makes it? You got it — me. So my bag sits for a day or so.

    Limiting interruptions can be problematic for me as my desk/work area/mission control is right in the middle of the kitchen and everyone esp. DH thinks that it’s OK to interrupt me anytime and for any reason. (God forbid I interrupt!) My therapist has a # of really good strategies– unable to implement due to main blocker refuses to deal and/or let implementation occur. I’ll die trying! Keep at it folks! Don’t get discouraged. It will happen – especially if your significant other, husband, etc. is younger than 60 yrs old!!! LOL!!!

  9. posted by Linda on

    My best anti-mess habit when handling paper is if it can be dealt with in less than 2 minutes – do it right then. Once I started this I was stunned at how many things I had been setting aside for “later”.

  10. posted by Rebecca Curtis on

    Great post! You have hit the issue dead on! I don’t know how many times people have asked me how they can keep up with their INBOX and the build up of clutter. All of your prevention techniques are exactly the kinds of suggestions I have recommended and that I use. The one I like the most on your post that most people (including myself) forget is “If you can do something right now, do it.” I have applied this to every project that I do, even if the project is not completed, if it is the end of the day, at work or at home, I put everything away. This allows additional projects to not stack up on top of each other if they can’t be completed at that moment and keeps things from getting disorganized. Thank you for making this issue such a simple process! 🙂

  11. posted by Katrina on

    When I travel I store my clothes in space-bag style plastic bags in the suitcase. I include 2 bags for dirty clothes which I sort by ‘whites and lights’ and ‘darks’. So when I get home my travel washing is already sorted and can be taken straight out of the bag.

  12. posted by Debi on

    I have a job that is a constant interruption. I love it!
    I keep a notebook or post-it pad with me most of the time. I’m constantly jotting information down for later.
    When later finally arrives, I start adding the post-it notes to the notebook and then prioritize! It works for me!

  13. posted by [email protected] on

    The area in which I am most organised (and it never gets messy) is my fridge. Once a week it’s stripped down, cleaned and photographed. By having a set routine, a procedure and being accountable my ‘eye is on the prize’ aka no food waste. I never thought I’d say this but routine is key to organisation it eliminates timely decision making and potential procrastination.

  14. posted by WilliamB on

    I generally finish what I start … generally.

    There are dreaded tasks that I am fully capable of putting off and putting off just because I don’t want to do them. One thing that helps is to focus on the benefits of getting it done: damn thing out of the way, space cleared, looking forward to maintaining it instead of letting it get out of hand (75% of the time, maintenance is easier for me).

    There are also tasks that I know I should have done already, so I put them off in order to put off facing the fact I screwed up by putting them off. Knowing this helps me face up to the unpleasant reality but it’s not 100%. I have a couple of these in my life right now.

  15. posted by WilliamB on

    A hint: figure out the time of day or week that you’re the most productive, and set aside that time for what needs to be done.

    For me it’s first thing in the morning (which presents me an eternal conflict between doing stuff and going running) or, depending on how the day went, my first hour or two at home. But I’m also hungry when I get home…

  16. posted by guest in ca on

    I learned to consider my inbox just a spot to keep things new to my desk/workspace – it isn’t a storage area or where I keep anything I’ve already reviewed & need to work on. I set up a simple system idiosyncratic to me & how my brain works to quickly file away any items not doable at the instant moment. Anything with a deadline or follow-up date goes into a tickler file that I review every day (it’s sorted by date, not one humongous file). Every morning now I’m in the habit of checking that day’s folder to see what’s on tap.

    This can work with both hard copy and electronic systems. So you might have both a hard copy file and an electronic to-do list to check each day.

    I learned long ago that a few minutes scheduled into every work day spent on clearing out what’s left in the inbox and tossing or sorting to the appropriate spot saves a lot of time in the long run. Once you’ve done this once, it really only takes a few minutes to do this daily. Yes, coming back after a few weeks away will mean you have a bunch more stuff, but to be expected & planned for just like the loads of laundry.

  17. posted by Caroline on

    I am curious Jo – why do you photograph your fridge?

  18. posted by MaryJo @ reSPACEd: Budget Organizing on

    I truly believe the messes we create start in our mind. We think certain thoughts (eg. “I’ll just put my bags here for now and will put them away later.”) These thoughts lead to behaviors (eg. Leaving your stuff sitting out) and voila! you have a mess.

    If you change your thoughts, you can change your behaviors. Change your behaviors, and you will be well on your way to a cleaner house. For those interested, I wrote about this in more detail here: http://respacedpdx.com/2012/01.....read-this/

  19. posted by Linda on

    Oh, I love Jo’s idea of photographing her frig. I’m going to take pics of my basement as we start to clean & declutter.

  20. posted by [email protected] on

    Hi Caroline and Linda. I blog on a Friday about Food Waste (other days other areas of simple living) – No Waste Tastes Great. Basically to reduce food waste on a Friday I strip the fridge down and account for everything shelf by shelf to the world (well my readers). I don’t meal plan on a Friday and if there is any potential food waste I design a meal around what I have left. This is a routine I have been doing for over 12 months now (after being inspired by Food Waste Friday over at The Frugal Girl) and not only have I reduced my food budget by 50% I now hardly ever have waste. Oh and a sparkly Fridge! Linda – definitely take photo’s it’s a fantastic motivator – who would know how much work has gone into it if you don’t know where you started? Yesterday I posted before and afters of my kitchen cupboards. I do it with everything I declutter now. Someone actually commented yesterday I’d made them feel calm with my ‘after’ photos 🙂

  21. posted by spike humer on

    I loved this article, I have a established brick and mortar business but my website is very new

    and was built after clients
    literally begged me to have one. I like your list of white hat tactics, things I can do without jeopardizing

    the good reputation I have
    already. thank you

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