How good are you at letting others help you?

I’m not. Not at all, in fact. Whenever someone offers to help me with anything, my immediate reaction is, “No, I can do it!” As if I were a five year old in front of an adult who questions my ability to do something.

It’s a terrible affliction this need to be so independent. And to be quite honest, it’s rather selfish on my part, too.

In an article in Psychology Today, the author talks about how letting others help you is a gift you give them. Most of us feel the desire to help whenever loved ones need it and helping them makes us feel better.

Just last night a friend was saying how her vacation plans fell through because of a mix-up with the online vacation reseller. We automatically offered our place in La Rioja – at least they would be able to get away from home for a week and they both love wine and sun. While it’s not the 5-star hotel they had hoped for, at least it’s a change of pace and scenery.

She said she couldn’t possibly and I countered with, “If the roles were reversed, would you offer us your place?” When she said, “Of course!” half-offended that I would imply otherwise, she realized how incongruent she was being and added, “Fine, I’ll think about it.”

When it comes to clutter, disorganization, or a lack to time deal with all of your responsibilities, can you ask for help, or are you like my friend who is horrified at imposing on others?

If you are like my friend (and to be honest, like me) and don’t like asking for help, these five tips from the “Savvy Psychologist” Ellen Hendrikson, PhD, may just help you:

  1. I don’t want to be a burden. As I’ve said already, people love to help. To get over this feeling, try asking for something small and very specific. Ask your best friend over and say, “Can you help me go through my closet? I want to get rid of some clothes, and I need an objective eye.” (Offering wine while you do it might help soothe your feelings of imposing.)
  2. I can’t admit that I need help. There’s nothing wrong with needing help. Being a human being means being part of a community, and in communities, people help each other. Try depersonalizing the problem. Instead of saying, “I can’t get the bathroom cabinets under control.” say, “The bathroom cabinets are about to explode (and it has nothing to do with me as a person; it’s external to who I am).”
  3. I don’t want to feel indebted. Helping isn’t a barter system. People don’t help in order to be able to call in the favour later (at least people with a healthy understanding of relationships don’t). Try feeling gratitude. Say, “Thank you, I really appreciate this.” No need to offer reciprocal help in that moment. No one is going to present you with a bill (unless you’ve hired yourself a Professional Organizer, of course).
  4. I can’t show my weakness. This is my issue. I’m independent. I can do it! I don’t need anyone! Whenever I find myself acting like this I give myself a good shake and say, “Oh, please, you’re not a toddler and you’re not some macho alpha who always has to be strong. No one is always strong.” Or, you can take this as an opportunity to learn something new, especially if you consult with an expert (again, perhaps a Professional Organizer).
  5. I might get rejected. People have their own situations to deal with and this might not be the right moment for them to help you. Don’t take it as rejection of you or your problems. Thank them anyway and find someone else to ask. Not everyone is going to be too busy to help. And if they are, as I’ve repeated several times now, you can always turn to professionals.

If you have trouble asking for help, which one (or ones) of these five reactions do you feel when considering asking for help? Do you think the tips are good ones for getting over each reaction? Have others worked for you?

And if you want a book to help you ask for help, why not check out Kickstarter-star Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking?

When is it all right to be disorganized?

Earlier this week I woke up sick. My stomach was doing acrobatics while simultaneously in a knot. I had no appetite and even the idea of sipping tea made me gag. Luckily, I never did end up in the bathroom, but I did sleep for two days straight.

Fortunately, I have a husband who wasn’t working and so he took care of me. But what if you’re sick at home alone (either because you live alone or because everyone else is out of the house for whatever reason)?

I know what you should do: accept that you’re sick and you aren’t going to be able to maintain any level of organization at home. Use the energy you have to take care of yourself and let the tissues, the dishes, and the clothes collect. It’s okay to let it go for a short while.

An Apartment Therapy post back in 2012 puts it well:

No, I’m just sick, this is highly temporary, and it will all go back to normal in a couple of days. There’s no need to hold yourself to your normal housekeeping standards — be gentle on yourself.

That, for me, is the trick to getting better quickly. Forget all the responsibilities you can, delegate whenever possible to coworkers, family members and if possible friends, then turn inward and focus 100% on yourself.

Learn to let go: if you spend all your energy fighting how sick you are, you won’t have any energy left to get better. Accept it and relax. Learn to stare at the ceiling without any guilt.

See it as a chance to catch up on sleep: I don’t know about you, but with all the things I have to do and the thoughts running around in my head every day all day, I never seem to get enough sleep. In being sick, I found the silver lining and have caught up on all my missed sleep. And if you can’t sleep during the day because of light coming into the room, try a sleep mask, but get one that can be heated or cooled to refresh or relax you at the same time.

Don’t go back to your regular routine too soon: Unfortunately not everyone can take time off work when sick, but if you have a job that allows for decent recovery time, take it. How many times have you gone back to work too soon and ended up prolonging your illness? (Or gifting it to unappreciative coworkers?)

Being organized and living an organized life is not a 24/7 activity. We don’t have to be organized all the time. It’s okay to let it slide every once in a while.

Apart from being sick (or taking care of sick family members), when else do you think it’s okay to let the household organization slip?

The minimalist vegetable garden: growing things when you have no space

I grew up vegetable gardening. We had a 25 acre property that had been in my family for decades and my mother always planted a huge garden, full of enough squash, beans, potatoes, carrots, and Swiss chard to get us through the entire winter.

As a university student and an apartment dweller, I didn’t vegetable garden at all. When I got my house in Toronto, I tried it given that I had a large backyard and prefer garden to grass, but all I ended up doing was feeding the neighbourhood raccoons.

I’ve been in Spain a decade now and other than helping out a friend in his garden plot a few towns over, I haven’t done any vegetable gardening at all. My husband loves cacti and our balconies are half full of the easy-to-care-for plants, but he’s not into anything at all edible.

Maybe it’s age, or maybe it’s looking out the bedroom window and seeing a large garden plot down below, but I’m getting the itch to do some gardening of my own. However, decorative plants are so not my thing. If I’m going to garden, I want it to be useful and productive. I want to be able to eat what I grow.

Our balconies, though, are not that conducive to vegetables. We’re on the ninth floor and face an ocean-side mountain, meaning that no matter what the weather’s like, there’s a strong breeze whipping by all day long. Plus the protected balcony is too small and already occupied by the beloved cacti, so growing any edible plants there is not really an option.

What’s a wannabe apartment gardener to do then?

I thought I’d give vertical gardening a try. While we don’t have a lot of wall space, we do have quite a lot of ceiling and railing space to hang planters. Amazon has several varieties, such as Topsy-Turvy Tomato Planters that hang from the ceiling, or any number of hanging or self-supporting vertical planters.

I’m never going to get a full vegetable garden in, not even if I opt for square-foot gardening, but I think I might just be able to scratch that itchy green thumb of mine with a few dangling tomato plants, some wall-hugging herbs and maybe a zucchini plant or two elegantly hanging off the inside of the balcony railing.

Any suggestions? Do you have postage-stamp balcony gardens? How do you satisfy your urge to cultivate?

When it comes to an organized home, does size matter?

I’m a longtime fan of TV home design shows, especially the Love or List franchises. I even watch them here in Spain dubbed into Spanish and several years out of date. As much as I love seeing the transformations, my main reason for watching the shows has nothing to do with the home makeovers at all.

I watch the shows because I love seeing the reactions of Spanish friends and family as the homeowners complain about their lack of space.

Having lived in both cultures, I understand both points of view. I grew up in a 14-room (four bedroom) house on a third of an acre lot. My parents retired to a 5000 square foot home with a separate guest house. My own house in downtown Toronto was over a 1000 square feet with 50×50 ft gardens in front and in back of the house. And half the time, I thought my house was too small for just me!

When I moved to Spain and came upon a completely different mindset.

My first apartment (which I shared with my now-husband) was 270 square feet and we lived there quite happily for over five years (after living there for two years and not killing each other, we decided that marriage was a definite possibility).

The flat we live in now is about 600 square feet and, to be quite honest, is more than large enough for the two of us (and whatever guests might be visiting). In fact, I’m now so accustomed to the size of living spaces here that I have no desire for a large place. When buying a second place for weekends and vacations, we looked at a narrow three-story house in the center of a village, but decided that it was too big, and I’m pretty certain it was under 1000 square feet.

In 2013, the website Shrink the Footprint published an article about average home size around the world and it seems to show that countries with lots of space tend to have larger homes (Canada, USA, Australia).

My Spanish friends and family ask me all the time why North Americans need so much space. “Doesn’t it just generate more clutter?” they ask.

Judging by the majority of houses featured in the typical home makeover programs, the answer seems to be yes, more space equals more clutter.

But, I’m not sure how true that really is. I’ve mentioned before the TV show Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, and the majority of the people on the show who live in cluttered spaces have small homes in comparison with a typical North American house.

When asked that question, therefore, I explain that it’s all a matter of mindset and attitude. Yes, more space could encourage more clutter, but only if you let it. Just as a small space might cause someone to cram what he owns into every nook and cranny.

In other words, in my opinion, when it comes to being organized, size does not matter in the least. But that could just be me.

What about you? Is there a link between house size and disorganization?

What makes you switch your ways?

For a business course I’ve been taking on change management, I’ve recently read the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It was published back in 2010 and Erin talks about it briefly in relation to a video interview with one of the authors.

Although the book is seven years old, its content is 100% current and presented me with a whole new way of creating change — not just at work but also in my life in general.

The Heath brothers tell us to forget about the reward-punishment dichotomy of the carrot-stick approach to change.

For real lasting change to occur, it needs to be appealing on three levels:

  • It needs to make sense.
  • It needs to resonate emotionally.
  • And it needs to be clearly articulated and have easy-to-implement steps.

They talk about these three points using the analogy of trying to ride an elephant. Logic (the Rider) can only go so far in directing the change. Emotion (the Elephant) is a much stronger element and can’t be forced to go where it doesn’t want to. And finally, if the path isn’t easy, neither the Rider nor the Elephant are going to want to make the change in direction.

As I said, the book opened my eyes to a new way of managing and encouraging change, but as with all methods, you need to take into account your audience. In a work situation, I didn’t do that and had to twist and turn to avoid a staffing disaster.

I’ve been trying to convince staff to adopt a new program, and was facing resistance. After reading Switch, I realized I was neither appealing to the Elephant nor making the path easy. So, armed with a hugely motivating presentation, I held a staff meeting where I was going to do a bang-up job of getting staff excited about the program before diving into the details of how we could all work together to make the transition easier and better for everyone.

Unfortunately, one staff member hates emotional appeals — I mean, despises them! He sees red whenever anything “motivational” floats before his eyes. From the first slide in the presentation, he turned confrontational and spent the rest of the hour-long meeting arguing against something that logically he and I have agreed upon as necessary and practical.

The next day, he and I spoke and we agreed that in the future, any time that I plan on motivating staff, he will be excused from the meeting and I will send him an email logically extolling the virtues of whatever change I am proposing to the rest of the staff.

Although it was an intensely frustrating hour, I learned a great deal from the confrontation, the main point of which is that when you are discussing change with anyone, you need to know what will best appeal to them.

If you want to change teenage behaviour at home, for example, neither logical nor emotional appeals will likely work very well. You need to make the change easier than not changing at all.

No matter your approach, however, if you are looking to make any sort of change in your personal or work life, I highly recommend reading Switch before embarking on the journey.

How much ignorance makes you blissful?

The other day I was looking at a company’s informational brochure about the various programs and services they offer. It was 44 pages long. Seriously, forty-four pages! I understand that they want to cover everything and be able to offer something of interest to everyone, but honestly, 44 pages?

The brochure went into the recycling bin before I’d gotten past the third page, losing the company a potential customer. They just offered me too much information.

The situation reminded me of the books, The Paradox of Choice and Stumbling Upon Happiness, both of which discuss how too many choices make us unhappy. With unlimited choice comes unlimited indecision and increasing unhappiness.

I’m not sure I agree with this idea. You see, I’ve always been a bit of a Goldilocks when it comes to information. Give me too little information and I feel that I’m being forced into something I don’t agree with. Give me too much information and I feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. But give me just enough information that I feel that I’m making an informed choice and away I go, happy with the decision I’ve made.

What’s the key word there?

Feel.

There’s no such thing as too much information or too little. There is just enough to make you feel right about the decision you are making.

When it comes to politics, I know where my heart lies, so I need very little information to convince me that my favorite party is the one to vote for. However, when it comes to buying a house, there’s no end to the information that I collect before making the decision (neighborhood, taxes, possible renovation costs, neighbors, schools, and the list goes on and on).

But, sit me down in a restaurant and give me a one or two page menu, I’m thrilled. (Home-style, no choice restaurants scare me a little, and large chains with ten-page menus kill my appetite.)

When it comes to organizing, the same scale exists. What is your personal comfort level of stuff in different situations? At work, I’m the king of processes, with everything carefully documented and labelled. At home, I’m happy owning only a few things and labelling nothing.

In other words, don’t let anyone tell you what is the “right” amount of stuff or whether it’s well-organized or not.

It all comes down to your level of bliss. What makes you happy? Ignorance? Information-saturation?

It’s up to you.

Renting vs Owning a Home: The Eternal Debate

Back in 2006 when I left Canada, I sold my house and thought I’d never buy another one again. The place had been a fixer-upper and my father and I had invested a lot of time and money into it (nine years to be exact) — just in time to sell it.

I know that home-ownership is supposed to be the holy grail of the (North) American Dream, but I really wasn’t sure I wanted to ever get back into the cycle of renovations, repairs, and mortgages. It took a bit of an attitude change because as a simple search on Amazon suggests, mortgage-free home-ownership is what we are all supposed to aim for.

But I knew couples who had been renting for over twenty years and they had more disposable income than I’d ever had. When something went wrong in their place, it was the building owners, not the renters, who had to pay for it. Renters also knew exactly how much they needed to pay every month without any sort of surprise costs like a new roof or plumbing repairs.

That sounded good to me.

Generations ago in Ireland, my father’s family were renters. Yes, they owned property, but they never lived where they owned. They used the extra income from renting out the place to rent something better for themselves. And while they had those emergency expenses that any homeowner had, they considered it as a part of running a business, rather than intruding on their lives directly.

When I settled in the Basque Country, I was convinced that renting was for me. Although it irritated me a little bit that I couldn’t do up the place exactly as I would like, I was pleased to no longer have the temptation to enter into constant rounds of renovations like my parents did. They cycled through the house I grew up in, redoing one room a year, and I can’t count the number of times they completely remodeled the garden.

When my parents died a few months apart from each other then eight months after that my mother-in-law passed away, my husband and I found ourselves with a chunk of money. Given the volatile nature of the markets at that moment, investing did not seem like a good plan.

So, we got back into the home-ownership market, not just once but twice, buying a flat where we live full-time plus a second one in a sunny part of Spain. However, this second time around, owning a home is different from the first time.

  • We chose to live in a tower instead of a detached home, meaning emergency expenses are shared by the whole building and in a recent case, spread out over three years.
  • Our flat is half the size of the (small) house I had in Toronto, and is just the size we need.
  • Renovations happened quickly, before we moved in.
  • Mortgage payments are less than the monthly rent we were paying.

The second flat we bought (mortgage-free) has a double purpose, one as a weekend and summer retreat, and the other as a retirement emergency fund in case one or both of us needs to go into a nursing/retirement home. While medical costs are covered here in Spain, there is a big difference between public and private retirement residences. With the money from selling off the second flat, we will be able to live out our final years in comfort.

My siblings, however, took other routes: my sister invested in a large rambling country home and my brother sold his house and sunk the money into his girlfriend’s place, turning home-ownership into a type of romantic commitment.

When deciding if renting or owning is for you, just as with any project you undertake, it’s imperative you consider your priorities. In this case, the questions that can help you decide which option is better for you include:

  • What type of financial situation do you want to be in? Fixed or variable costs?
  • How important is it to you to put your personal stamp on the space you live in?
  • How much space do you really need? How much do you want to maintain?

The New York Times, has a good rent vs. buy calculator. I plugged in the original numbers for our primary residence and the results confirmed that buying was the right option financially, as we would be paying about three times the amount in rent each month as we do with the mortgage.

Are you a renter or a homeowner? Do you know which is the better option for you financially? Or are there other factors (emotional, familial, etc…) that led you to choose?

What are your organizing priorities?

The other day, a new topic was posted in the Unclutterer Forums asking what people store on their kitchen counters. That got me thinking about when we renovated our apartment and how we really worked hard to get the space organized right before the construction began. So we looked at our priorities and worked from there.

First priority: We have an open-concept kitchen and it’s almost the first thing you see upon entering, so anything that is merely functional and not decorative needed to be stored away.

Second priority: We are addicted to our Thermomix (for those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s like a blender, food processor and cooking tool all in one, but so much more!). We use it at least twice a day — more than any other appliance in the house. It therefore needed its own counter space in the center of the kitchen, but not too obvious because while incredibly functional, it’s not the most beautiful machine in the world.

Third priority: We entertain frequently and have a lot of dishes, plus we keep a wide variety of foods and gadgets on hand for when a cooking whim strikes us (like making sushi from scratch or blow-torching a crême brulé). Easily accessible storage space was imperative. We opted for lower cabinet drawers rather than non-moving shelves so that nothing ever “disappears” in the back of a cupboard. It’s all visible and at hand. For the areas where we could not install drawers, we opted for sliding stainless steel baskets.

Fourth priority: We listened to the professionals, but trusted our intuition. We took our initial plans to a kitchen design shop and they made some really good suggestions such as installing tower-based fridge and oven/microwave units. But, we also knew what we wanted and stood our ground on some issues (such as sacrificing space between the peninsula and the wall in order to keep the full-size peninsula). Coming up with the ideas was based on hours and hours of looking at kitchen designs (mainly through photos posted in the Houzz app).

In the end, the kitchen was the most expensive part of our back-to-the-walls renovation, but given how much time we spend there, we consider it money very well spent.

Organizing isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Your home (or work space) won’t stay organized if it doesn’t mesh with your priorities and if you don’t know what those are, you might only get your space “right” by accident. So the next time you’re going to do a major re-organization or renovation, take some time to think about what’s important to you and how you want to use the space before diving into the project.

Is money becoming obsolete?

Recently I went an entire week without taking any money out of the bank. Every single one of my purchases was done online, via digital transfers using my bank’s app, or with my bank card in stores.

There are definite advantages to living this way, the most important being my ability to track my spending. For example, my bank’s app has a ‘summary’ function that looks at my purchases and sorts them by type of company, dividing them up into categories and months. It then tells me what it thinks I will spend this month and how much left I have in my budget.

Back in the late 90s when I was saving for a house, my budgeting was based on putting specific amounts of money into envelopes labeled with categories. When the envelope was empty, I couldn’t spend any more in that category.

Things have changed a little bit since, then, haven’t they?

Here in Spain, paying by cell phone is becoming more and more popular — you just position your phone near the store’s terminal and a wallet app opens, allowing you to confirm the payment. Again, each transaction is then automatically recorded, so you can later review what you spend and where.

Is there a downside to all of this?

That depends on what you think about personal privacy and data mining. For example, each time I purchase an ebook on Amazon or a flight via an online operator, my Facebook feed fills up with ads for similar books and vacations. It’s a bit disconcerting to think that companies track my spending and use it to advertise to me, but for me, it’s a small price to pay for the convenience.

If I were still running my own business, I’d be thrilled with the detailed tracking of my expenses. Instead of hours of input into whatever financial program I was using, I could simply open up an app and see exactly what I’ve spent and where. If I had separate bank accounts for personal and business spending, I wouldn’t even need a financial program anymore, as it would be all there for me to see and consult whenever I (or my accountant) needed to.

What do you think? How much actual cash do you spend these days? Is the digitization of money a good thing? Will paper money disappear at some point?

When was the last time you re-organized?

When we moved into our apartment, we had completely renovated the place, right back to the exterior walls. Being two organized people, we took the time to think through our designs and make sure everything had a place, and we didn’t fill up the house with too much stuff.

Fast forward two years…

The spacious walk-in closet feels cramped. There are expired packages of food in kitchen drawers and cupboards. We can’t see the floor under the sink in the bathroom. CDs have found their way off their shelves and onto various surfaces throughout the house, and random computer cables have snaked their way over the spare bedroom/office.

How could this have happened? We tidy up and clean our flat every week and we both adore being organized!

Well, life happened. Familiarity bred blindness. And so, bit by bit, the house has lost its shiny-new look and feel.

It doesn’t have to stay that way, however.

Some things are simple to re-organize, like the CDs and computer cables. We’ve added them to our weekly cleanup tasks and they no longer threaten to invade spaces not specifically assigned to them.

As for the rest, it’s required a series of weekend projects (or in our case, a series of mid-week projects as we like to keep our weekends free for fun activities).

To start with, my husband tackled the walk-in closet paring down our clothes and reorganizing what we had left. It’s something that needs to be done periodically as clothes come in and out of fashion, our weight goes up and down, and more obviously, the seasons change, requiring different sorts of outfits.

He then cleared out what was below the bathroom sink. It turns out that when we moved in, we put a bunch of things that we weren’t quite sure what to do with down there in baskets and then forgot about them. And in the manner of all disorganized spaces, the clutter attracted more clutter. To find space for what was there, he reorganized the drawers in the bathroom and managed to carve out room for everything else and make it all more accessible in the process.

Our next task is the kitchen. In our house, it’s probably the most used room as we both love to cook. You’d think that would mean that it’s the most organized space, but no. I’m not sure if we’ll attack it one drawer at a time, or go all out and reorganize and clean everything at once. Given how much better the first two spaces turned out, it’s not something we’re going to let slide much longer.

And now you say: “Great, thanks for the personal story, Alex, but what does it have to do with me?”

Well, how long have you lived in your current abode? How long since you’ve taken a look at the various places where things get stored? Can you access everything easily and do you even know what’s there? Because if you’ve forgotten you have something, you might as well not own it.

So tell me, what mini re-organizing project are you going to take on?

Are you able to disconnect?

Here in Spain, today is Labor Day. At this particular moment, instead of being at my desk, I’m in our apartment in La Rioja, Spain’s wine country, recovering from having eaten too much yesterday at a home-style restaurant that keeps serving food until you’re ready to explode — and then they bring out dessert.

But forget about my bout of over-eating; the thing to focus on here is the fact that I’m in the process of completely disconnecting from work and having a bunch of laughs with friends.

Sometimes that disconnection is difficult for me. I love my job and often find myself thinking about it outside of work hours — in the shower, while falling asleep, while watching a movie, when I’m out for dinner. And when I’m not working, I am thinking about articles for Unclutterer, or thinking about how I could squeeze more out of each day.

Shep Hyken, in an article in Forbes, says that working outside working hours is normal, especially the higher up you go. However, he also believes that everyone has the right to disconnect from work and even quotes the cheesy line: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

With smartphones and constant connectivity, it’s often hard to leave work at work, or any other passion, for that matter. So what can we do to truly disconnect from the need to be productive?

The Huffington Post offers several ways of organizing disconnection time:

  • Make time off a priority
  • Delegate tasks
  • Meditate mindfully
  • Use your smartphone to remind you to disconnect more
  • Write about your stress in order to release it

And SmartChic goes even further with ten disconnection ideas:

  • Prepare your next day before leaving work
  • Set limits and stick to them
  • Derail work thoughts when you are outside of work with fun distractions
  • Relax with a hot shower when getting home from work
  • Exercise
  • Get hobbies that are not productivity-related
  • Have non-work friends
  • Spend time with (chosen) family
  • Do something creative
  • Turn off electronics

These are all really good ideas, but to be honest, I’m exhausted just reading about all the ways to disconnect.

Let me give you my foolproof way of disconnecting. I learned how to do it when I went through a health crisis decades ago and was forced to do nothing.

Ready?

  1. Sit on the sofa or in a comfy chair
  2. Focus on a blank patch of the wall or the ceiling
  3. Let your mind wander with no judgement about any thoughts that may occur to you

And that’s it. No rules, no disconnection productivity tips, no processes to learn. Disconnecting is about disconnecting. Remember, as En Vogue sings, “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.

Working in groups productively

We live in a condominium of 15 floors with 4 units per floor. While that might not sound like a lot of units to high-rise dwellers in cities like Toronto or New York, here in the Basque Country, it’s considered a huge number of neighbors.

While normally we are quite happy with the set up, at times having so many neighbors can create friction, such as when work needs to be done on the building as a whole.

Over two years ago, shortly after we moved in, the company that administers the building announced that the government was requiring an inspection of the state of the building (it’s over 50 years old). This study revealed that while the façade is in good shape, many balconies and window sills are in danger of crumbling.

Finally, this year it looks like the work is going to start, but we still have the biggest hurdle to leap — getting neighbors to choose which company will do the work.

When the project was first announced, my husband and I spoke and we decided that I would join the committee that would review the proposals and make recommendations to the neighbors. Once the project is underway, this committee will also meet with the construction company to make sure everything is going as planned and that the building as a whole stays informed about the project.

I could have decided not to bother getting involved, as the majority of the unit owners have done, but we plan on living here for at least a couple of decades more and we care about our home just as much as any homeowner.

And I have to say that I’ve really appreciated my organizing background during the process as it has helped keep everything and everyone on track while minimizing arguments and chaos.

Specifically, being organized has helped me in the following ways:

Short, effective meetings: I hate meetings that constantly go off topic and last forever. For that reason, I have gone to every meeting with the basic tools of paper and pen, and with questions prepared to ask the administrator or the construction company reps. Most of the others on the committee have lived in the building or neighborhood their whole lives, and they can easily get distracted by other topics. Gently, but firmly, I pull them back on topic, and being the “new” neighbor, they realize that they are merely reminiscing and then they get back to business.

Simple visuals: The proposals and budgets we were given to study were twenty pages each and filled with technical details and column after column of numbers. Even the summary the architect gave us was incomprehensible. To make sure I understood the situation correctly and that we weren’t missing information, I created a four-page summary with the following:

  • What will / won’t be done
  • Guarantees
  • Cost comparisons
  • Financing options
  • Optional additional work
  • Pros & cons of each company

I took this summary to subsequent meetings. The administrator and architect corrected a few items that I had confused, and cleared up questions that all of us had.

Only essential information: An even shorter two-page version has been given to every neighbor to be used as the basis for discussion; removing options, personal opinions of the committee, and details of the work to be done. The debate is going to be heated because it involves a lot of money so we decided to remove any extra information that might be used as an excuse to argue more. Basically, the government has declared that the work is necessary, and the only decision to be made is which construction company will do the work. Anything not related to that decision has been cut out completely.

Learning from similar projects: In our area there are twelve towers of the same style that were built at the same time. Several of them have already had this work done. Using the connections that the long-time residents have, we’ve learned what extra work is not worth the effort and what details to pay attention to. For example, in a recent renovation two towers over, the balcony design included tear-shaped posts. When the wind comes down over the mountain, the new balconies now whistle. We will definitely be avoiding fancy balcony designs.

So that’s my situation. But what does this have to with all of you? How can my experience help you?

Whenever working on committees, whether it’s for a renovation in the building you live in, or an upcoming volunteer event, here are the four basic principles that can be applied to any project:

  • Short, effective meetings: Respect people’s time. If meetings go on too long or wander about, volunteers will be more likely to quit. If people want to chat, organize a post-meeting coffee where participants can go as far off topic as they like.
  • Simple visuals: In any project, there is always an insane amount of information to be sifted through and decisions to be made. Reducing the options to simple tables and bullet points filters out extraneous information and focuses the decisions on what’s really important.
  • Only essential information: While transparency is important, very rarely does everyone need to know everything. Create a committee to filter out details that the rest of the stakeholders don’t need. Also, when providing just the essential information, the committee ensures that decisions already made at the committee level aren’t rehashed by everyone else.
  • Learning from similar projects: As the phrase “there’s nothing new under the sun” implies, we can always learn something by looking for similar situations in the past. What worked, what didn’t, etc…

Am I missing anything? What has your experience working on committees taught you about being productive in groups?