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?

A tale of two extremes

There’s a TV show in the UK that has recently made its way to Spain and it has quite a different take on the clutter/declutter reality TV market. The Spanish title translates to You get dirty and I’ll clean it up which is much more expressive than the original UK title of Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners.

The idea behind the show is that people who spend a large portion of their day cleaning their houses and getting rid of germs, go into houses that haven’t been cleaned in years.

At the end of each episode the narrator tells us what each person has learned from the experience, and more often than not, the cleaners say that they have relaxed their cleaning regime at home and the ones whose house was organized and cleaned say that they have learned the value in keeping their house visitor-presentable.

I’m not going to get into the perception of either side of the equation that the show generates as there is quite a bit of controversy over both sets of images. That’s not what today’s article is about.

No, what I find fascinating is the learning from each other part. I’ve already talked about this in my post about the concept of good enough but I wanted to explore it further.

At work, my former boss was all about the details and I’m a big-picture person. We often clashed (although that’s too harsh a word as conversations were always pleasant with her) about the number of details that needed to be considered before making a decision, as well as what, and how much of something should be kept, and for how long.

We learned a lot from each other. She learned that sometimes details only confused issues and I learned that they also allowed us to make well-informed decisions and gave a sense of history to what we do at work.

On the personal side of things, I come from a family where there’s always a silver-lining to any cloud and so planning wasn’t as important because there’s an opportunity for fun in every situation. My husband believes that more fun can be had if things are planned fully and that plan is kept. We’ve each learned to move a bit more towards the center. I have admitted that a great plan makes for a great day, and he allows that a plan not followed doesn’t mean total disaster.

Those are just two situations where some sort of relationship with an opposite personality type enriches my life.

How about you? How has a relationship of two extremes helped you?

The clothes on your back and not much else

Warning: Today’s post is not a cheery one. It takes minimalism to the terrible extreme.

Recently Jeri wrote an article about being prepared for a tsunami. Never having lived in an earthquake or tsunami zone, I had never thought about it. I have, however, been thinking quite a lot about the refugee situation in Syria and about all the North Africans who take the very dangerous crossing to southern European countries.

Over a decade ago, I sold everything that didn’t fit into two suitcases and a dozen boxes and left Canada for France then Spain. The suitcases came with me and the boxes stayed in my parents’ house in Canada. When my parents passed away, some of those boxes plus twenty more made the trip across the ocean to tie my life here back to my Canadian past.

But what if I’d only had those two suitcases? Or less? What if I had no choice about leaving? That staying meant putting myself and my family in extreme danger? Or that my life where I was so bad that I was willing to face death to find something better?

If I had time, I would scan the family photos that I haven’t yet as well as my father’s artwork that hangs on the walls. I would put it all in a hard drive along with the photos already digitized and protect it as much as I could. I would add legal documents (including the deed to the house in case I could some day come back). I’d pack the extra batteries I have for my phone along with my international charger. The minimum toiletries and the most versatile and durable pieces of clothing I had would fill up the rest of the smallish knapsack (because clearly, anything too big would be hard to carry and easily lost).

Finally, on my way out the door, I would take a stuffed bear, not the one that my grandparents gave me for my first Christmas, nor the stuffed kitty I’ve had since the day after I was born. No, I would take the bear that has accompanied me on almost all my adventures in the past ten years and who has developed a personality of his own, who everyone we know recognizes as another member of the family.

And that’s it.

It’s not a pleasant exercise, nor is it easy, but I think that for those of us who live in relatively safe countries and come from rather privileged situations, it’s an eye-opener and forces us to understand the stress that refugees are under.

What about you? What would your absolute minimum level of extreme minimalism be?

Inherited work clutter – what will your successor have to deal with?

In my last post, I wrote about inherited family clutter. But there are other places we inherit other people’s clutter and the biggest one is at work.

Let me give you an example. Where I work, my former boss had been in her position for almost twenty years. Her mind worked better in paper. She liked to be able to touch things and look up information in books and files. After retiring this summer, she did me the mega-favor of coming in on her own time in September to clear out her office and leave me with what she considered to be the right amount of information.

I, however, don’t work the same way. As I think I might have mentioned once or twice, I hate paper, filing cabinets and bookcases full of books that nobody references.

This has meant that whenever I’m not focused on daily operations or moving the organization forward, I tackle a shelf or a handful of files. I have also rearranged furniture and eliminated several non-matching pieces that just begged to have unused paper piled on top of them, and in the process taken a sort of informal inventory of what we have.

Some areas of the office are bit chaotic since I haven’t been able to devote whole days to a beginning-to-end purge and reorganization, but I am bit-by-bit transforming the office, bringing it in line with the beliefs and habits of the staff who are paper-haters like me.

This process has raised questions for me about my own work habits and although I have just started in my position with the intention of staying in it a long time, having to go through the inherited clutter of my boss, I have been asking myself about succession planning and what someone who comes in after me will think of the way I’ve left the office.

Before I go any further, therefore, I’ve decided to formalize the organization and to depersonalize it. In other words, I am going to use the organization’s mission statement and objectives as my guide for what we end up keeping, what we get rid of, and even where and how we store it.

In doing so, if and when I move on, my successor will have a clear understanding of what is where and why.

In the end, I will have cleared out four bookcases, two small filing cabinets and what’s left over, the staff will able to use because they know what it is, where it is, and what it can be used for.

So, now my questions for you:

  • What information do you store at work?
  • Are you clear why you are holding onto it?
  • Are you making your organizing decisions based on personal preference or are they tied to the cultural beliefs and mission of the organization?
  • If you won the lottery tomorrow and stopped working next week, what would your successor have to deal with? Could he or she sit down at your desk and start working without too much trouble?

Dealing with the clutter of previous generations

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to help a friend clear out the family home that needs to come down before it falls down. The house, which fills half a block in a small northern Spanish town, is a 17th century villa cut up into living quarters, a bar, a garage, and now-inaccessible storage space. My friend grew up with his parents, two uncles, a grandmother, and various other family members at different points over the years. When half the house was renovated and modernized, the unchanged part became a dumping ground for all those things no one quite knew what to do with.

The bar has been shut for over 15 years and yet (apart from the dust) it looked like it could have closed a few weeks ago. Every bedroom still had all the furniture, bedding, leftover clothes, and memorabilia from the last person to occupy it. The two living rooms had wall units that were stuffed to the brim with everything imaginable.

I was curious to see exactly what was in the dumping ground, but my friend told me the floors were not safe to walk on, meaning whatever someone had stored two, three, or ten decades ago was now gone for good more or less (perhaps to be rescued when the demolition starts).

A local charity shop was going to stop by to take furniture, wearable clothing, and “anything that is sellable.” That last category was never quite defined, so when it came to clearing out the house, about 80% of what was in the cupboards, closets, and wall units ended up in garbage bags. After two full days, the main living spaces were cleared out and ready for the charity pickup, but that still left the bar, the accessible storage spaces, and the terraces (I forgot to mention earlier the two large internal terraces full of more stuff).

With the sheer amount of junk to deal with, no one suggested organizing it all for recycling. Everything went into the same garbage bags, meaning it would all end up in landfill. And being non-sentimental types, my friend and his cousin were ruthless — photos, letters, report cards, everything went out. Their thinking was “if we haven’t missed it in ten years, we don’t want to know about it.”

That attitude seems to be one that is growing among people my age. We grew up with parents who were born just before the Second World War (or during the Spanish Civil War) and that generation for the most part, liked to hold onto things. My parents (who lived in Canada) were very organized people, but they had a house of over 4000 sq ft plus about six outbuildings. It gave them a lot of room to hold onto a lot of stuff.

My friend is single and works in an industry that requires him to move quite a bit. He has no interest in collecting anything. His cousin told me that as soon as she was done with the family home, she was going to go through her own house and clear out most of the stuff because she didn’t want to leave the same disaster for her own kids.

My brother and sister had the same reaction after clearing out our parents’ house (having picked up and moved to Europe a few years earlier, I had already purged everything I’d owned).

There are lots of articles on inherited clutter here on Unclutterer, but I wanted to talk about my recent experience because it raised some questions for me:

  1. Are Generation-Xers less sentimental and less interested in holding onto stuff?
  2. For those 40-somethings with parents still alive, have you encouraged them to streamline while they are still around to help give context to some of their collections?
  3. Are our children going to hold onto everything because we don’t?
  4. And finally, on an unrelated note, does having a lot of space always mean building up mounds of unwanted clutter?

I’m not going to try to answer any of these questions. Instead, I’ll leave them open to you to answer them in the comment section.

Do we outsource our memory too much?

Recently I started a new course that’s rather stressful and time-consuming. To prepare for it, at work, I wrote down everything I have to do between now and my August holidays. For Unclutterer, I didn’t do anything because Jacki has a lovely Google Calendar with all our publishing dates. And I informed my husband of when I would need to work on my course so that he wouldn’t feel ignored.

All good things, right? Communication, written task lists, and using sharing technology to its fullest. The height of personal organization.

But then, at work in doing one of my monthly tasks, I left half of it undone. Plus I didn’t go look at Jacki’s calendar and almost missed a publishing date (thanks for reminding me, Jacki). The only thing that didn’t go wrong was my relationship.

I asked myself why that happened.

I began by looking at my task list at work. When I’d written down the monthly task, I wrote down only the information for the first part of the task and nothing about the second. When I relied solely on my memory, I always went through a mental checklist to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Having written it down, I didn’t feel the need to go through that list and didn’t even remember the second part existed and it’s something I’ve been doing monthly for over 3 years!

Then I thought about the calendar and why I didn’t consult it. Lack of habit and assuming that I already knew it. I have to admit that last one is a biggie for me. I get convinced of something so much that I don’t bother checking to make sure that it is true.

This led me to wonder about using lists, relying on memory, or employing technology. Which works best and why?

With smartphones and prior to that day-planners, we have external memory devices around us all the time. No need to actually remember anything, right? But is that lazy of us? Over on Life Hacker, Thorin Klosowski did a personal experiment back in 2012 where he stopped relying on anything other than his brain to remember what he had to do and where he had to go.

To make sure he did everything he needed to, he would walk himself through the day each morning, similar to what I did for my monthly work tasks before making the mistake of half-writing them down. He found the experiment extremely helpful and although he didn’t stick to a brain-only memory prompt, he did decide to rely less on paper and technology.

Fascinated by Klosowski’s experiment, I thought I’d go see what else was out there and found an article in Wired from 2014 that looked at an experiment that tested people’s ability to remember things with or without the ability to write it down first. The results did not support note-taking as a memory tool. Those who relied solely on memory performed better.

“Okay, okay, maybe these are two isolated incidents,” I said to myself. “Let’s see what else is out there.”

Moving up to 2016, Motherboard published an article about how using technology to remember tasks makes it easier to forget them.

The author, Rachel Pick, was in a situation really close to mine — lots of commitments with different dates and requirements and no simple way to merge them all into a single list. She tried a physical planner, but just like me, she forgot to take it with her. She then tried apps, which were either too complex or too restrictive.

She finally tried Google Keep (which I use to remember restaurants in other cities, birthday gift ideas for my husband, and things that we have to take to the cottage). And she liked it, so much so that if something wasn’t written down in the app, it was like it never existed.

Being a curious person, Pick spoke with a neuroscientist to find out why this was happening. What he told her was basically what Klosowski discovered on his own — Pick was outsourcing her memory to Google Keep and was changing the way neurons were firing in her brain.

What was the neuroscientists advice? Rely more on memory and less on tools.

With so many things going on in my life, I can’t rely on just my memory, but what I have to do is start asking myself, “Are you sure that’s all? Are you missing anything?” and go through my mental checklists with paper and technology acting as prompts and light support only.

Unitasker Wednesday: My Critter Catcher

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

Does seeing bugs or spiders inside the house make you cringe, run away, or even scream? But does the idea of killing a living creature that’s just trying to survive fill you with guilt?

critter catcherWell, now there’s My Critter Catcher, a tool that can help you send the little monsters on their merry way without you having to actually approach them.

It’s based on the idea of those grasping tools that are designed for people with limited mobility, but instead of grips at the end of the tool, there is a soft-brush sort of scoop.

When you see a spider or other insect roaming about the house, all you need to do is place the scoop over the little guy and pull the trigger, gently trapping it inside the scoop. Take it outside, open up the brushes and off the spider or bug goes, still alive and free. All without you having to get anywhere near it!

Not sure, exactly how it works? Don’t worry, there’s a demonstration video with the young and the old showing us how convenient and eco-friendly the tool is.

While watching the video, I found myself asking how they got the bugs to stay still long enough to slip the tool over them. In my house, no matter how quickly I try to scoop up bug (or to be more honest, flatten it with a paper towel — I’m more of a survival of the fittest type), they always seem to see me coming and get out of the way before I get to them.

Thanks to my high school friend Cathy for posting this on Facebook (although the video was a different one, with a manly-man saving a woman from certain death-by-spider — I didn’t post that one because honestly who wants to see such rampant sexism?).

Living as paperless as possible

In my post about conference handouts, a reader asked me how I manage to live/work without a filing cabinet.

The easy answer is that I’ve organized both my work and personal life in a way that I don’t need to keep papers.

At home, everything I need to hold onto fits into about half a dresser drawer:

  • The deed, mortgage, our wills, and insurance papers (kept in a small fireproof safe)
  • One year of utility bills

And that’s it. Seriously. We don’t have children, so no need for filing report cards, badges, artwork and such. The Spanish medical system is centralized and efficiently run, so I don’t need to keep any of my own medical records. Apart from this writing gig, I don’t run my own business so don’t need to hold onto any receipts or the like. And since I’m rather anti-paper, I recycle almost everything that comes into the house. Finally, taxes are all done online and are accessible throughout the year, meaning I have no need to keep previous years’ tax forms.

At work, my role as Academic Director is about as paperless as a job can be. All my written communication with staff is done through email or WhatsApp. Student reports are stored in Google Drive spreadsheets and sent to parents monthly. The paper reports the teachers fill out are kept in one of three inbox trays (one per trimester), and in June they are all shredded.

And as I have no part in the administrative/financial side of the business, I don’t have any legal requirements to hold onto anything.

When I still lived in Canada, however, and ran my professional organizing business, I had to hold onto more paper, but I still didn’t have a filing cabinet, or even a drawer. Instead, every year, I bought myself a plastic multi-pocketed folder with an elastic closure. On the tabs for each pocket, I put the expense/income category and every day of the week, I would take five minutes to update my accounting program with anything new and store the piece of paper in its corresponding category.

The folder lived on top of my desk, beside the computer, easily accessible, portable and tidy. When the tax-year finished, the folder would go in an airtight plastic bin in the basement, and I would buy myself a new multi-pocketed folder.

I had such a simple filing system because I am a horribly disorganized person. I studied library science and records management but almost never worked in the field because I could never decide on just one set of stable categories. When asked, “where should I file this?” my brain would come up with at least 10 different options depending on the context of the potential future search.

Through many years of trial and error, I discovered the best way to be organized is to have as little as possible, and in more recent years, have as little legal responsibility as possible.

Now it’s time to turn the question to all of you: at home and at work, what papers do you honestly and truly NEED to keep and what are you keeping out of habit?

And once you’ve figured that out, check out Jacki’s article about organizing documents at home or the Office Organization archive for tips at work.

Agrihoods: rich whim or affordable future?

In a recent post, I talked about chef-sharing services where instead of having to cook, someone can order home-cooked meals. While it could reduce the need for and cost of a kitchen, it doesn’t quite go with my earlier premise of a new minimalism where the cost of ownership increase so much that only the top 1% of the population will be able to indulge in non-shared ownership.

In Detroit, Michigan, a new initiative has begun – the first fully urban agrihood creating produce and fresh air for a whole neighbourhood. Before going into details, let’s review exactly what an agrihood is. The website This Slow Life quotes NPR which describes an agrihood as:

…development-supported agriculture, a more intimate version of community-supported agriculture – a farm-share program commonly known as CSA. In planning a new neighborhood, a developer includes some form of food production – a farm, community garden, orchard, livestock operation, edible park – that is meant to draw in new buyers, increase values and stitch neighbors together.

Up until recently, agrihoods have mostly had the look and feel of a hipster’s alternative to a golf course. All around the U.S., communities are cropping up where developers sell the concept of getting back to nature to families who want to participate in the alimentation cycle of the family. As the NPR quote suggests, these predominantly rural communities are developed with an eye of drawing in new buyers. It’s consumerism masking itself as environmentalism. And while there is nothing wrong with that, it doesn’t address the issues of increased food costs and decreased corporate food quality.

This is where the Detroit project is different. Developed by the Michigan University Farming Initiative, this urban agrihood isn’t a new development – it’s a redevelopment of one part of a highly urbanized area. There’s no interest in drawing in new buyers – the MUFI agrihood will feed 2,000 households for free.

And not only that, it will use an abandoned building (which Detroit has a surplus of) to create a Community Resource Center that will teach nutritional literacy and address worries of food security.

By being run by volunteers, the program greatly reduces the cost of food for those who live around the farm.

I sincerely hope that this project has phenomenal success and begins to become not a one-off curiosity, but a model for sustainable urban redevelopment not just in American cities, but urban centers around the world.

Perhaps they will even become popular in my own city in the north of Spain, where any piece of open land gets claimed by some gardening-loving local who grows his or her own vegetables, raises chickens, and maybe makes their own cheese from a few goats. In fact, there is one right below my bedroom window with sheep whose baa-ing gently wakes me up in the morning.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to see neighborhoods of apartment dwellers starting to come together to fill up the roundabouts with vegetable plots and mini volunteer-run orchards?

How about where you live? Can you picture an agrihood redevelopment happening in your neighborhood? Maybe even in place of what’s currently a big-box supermarket?

Getting rid of the kitchen: social media dining

Unless you’ve been sitting on top of a mountain meditating the last five years, you’ll know the term food-porn: the exhibitionistic display on social media sites of everything we eat. I’m guilty of this, especially when it comes to the food we make at home. We love to cook and we love to share what we cook, and not just in our Instagram accounts. We also love to have people over for dinner and often when some service we use regularly does a great job, we take a cake or perhaps homemade donuts to them as a token of our gratitude.

In my search for examples of a non-ownership world, I’ve discovered a network of sites taking social media dining to the next level, like an Airbnb for meals. You join an online community, find home-based chefs in your area and look at what they are offering. You order your meal and arrange its pickup or delivery. You get a home-cooked meal without having to pay the price of a personal chef.

At first glance, this service doesn’t seem much different from the rest of the take-out options we have, but if you think about it, a home-based chef doesn’t have the high overhead a restaurant has. Nor does the home-based chef have to market; she just needs to be a member of an online community. Plus, in the majority of cases, a home-cooked meal is going to be a lot healthier than one you can get as take-out.

There is of course, one major problem with the service: in most places, it’s illegal to sell food that has been prepared in a home kitchen.

According to the digital news outlet Quartz.com, however, some U.S. states are looking to change that. California, for example, is looking at introducing a new category to its food and safety regulations, allowing home kitchens to prepare and sell food.

So, what does this mean for a non-ownership world? Back in the early 2000s, a friend of mine moved from Toronto to New York, where she said that her kitchen was so small and the local supermarkets so expensive that she found it more practical and economical to have a binder of local take-out options and only prepare breakfast at home. I’m pretty sure that if a social media dining community existed back then, she would have tossed out the take-out menus and would have enjoyed home-cooked meals on a daily basis.

Think about it… if you only had to prepare breakfast, you wouldn’t need a large kitchen. A kitchenette would be sufficient really, saving on space and energy costs. You wouldn’t need a large fridge, or even an oven. A combination microwave and grill would cover your needs. A coffee maker and a small stove top would round out all the appliances you’d need. One or two cupboards for dishes and glass. Someone dedicated to the social media dining lifestyle could pretty much do away with a kitchen altogether.

In many large cities, like New York, space comes at a premium. Put the kitchen in a walk-in closet and you have more space for living, perhaps an actual dining room, instead of having to perch on the edge of the sofa, hoping not to spill anything on the fabric.

Finally, many of those who are going to inherit a non-ownership world – the teens and twenty-somethings – have no idea how to cook and next to no interest in learning to do so. For them, social media dining has all the benefits of living at home without having to wash the pots and pans afterwards.

If you want to give social media dining a try, check out one of these communities – they might have someone in your area ready to cook for you: Josephine, MealSurfers and Umi Kitchen.

Active meditation, or why I love ironing

Whenever I tell people that I love ironing, especially large items like sheets and duvet covers, I get the strangest looks, like I had just told them I scrub my floors with a toothbrush.

“Your sheets?!?” they say aghast.

Yes, my sheets, and dishtowels, along with all my shirts and any trousers that aren’t denim.

Why do I love it so much? Apart from the oddly comforting vision of wrinkle-free fabric, when I’m ironing, I don’t think about anything else. It’s just me, the fabric and the steam-iron, putting order to my inner and outer world.

And it’s not just ironing that I love. Sweeping and doing the dishes create the same sense of tranquility for me. In fact, if I owned a store, whenever I didn’t have clients, I’d probably be outside sweeping the sidewalk and humming to myself.

This type of imposed order on chaos could be compared to the creation of a Japanese Zen garden. Just as a Zen priest rakes the gravel into near-perfect abstract patterns to help focus his thoughts and reach a deeper level of meditation, my household chores help me disconnect from the stresses of work, family, and daily life.

I’ve tried seated meditation in the past and it doesn’t work for me. I have poor posture (too many years at a desk job) and a very active brain. Between the pain of trying to maintain a sitting position for more than a minute and the million and one thoughts that pass through my mind, meditation just doesn’t happen.

In the 1970s, a new term for active meditation – Dynamic Meditation – was popularized by the Indian mystic Osho, although now the term is used to describe any sort of meditation that includes movement. The idea behind it is that since it’s difficult for modern people to sit still, the body can be in movement while the brain and spirit go on the meditative journey.

Here is how I meditate dynamically while getting my household chores done:

  1. Put on music – It doesn’t have to be soothing music. In fact, the other day, I listened to a selection of Greatest Hits by the rather out-there Army of Lovers. The point of the music is to create some background noise that reminds me of the existence of the outside world.
  2. Organize what I’m going to iron – It sounds silly, but to invoke the right frame of mind, I have an order to my ironing:
    • Handkerchiefs, tea-towels, cloth napkins: These small quick achievements make me happy and begin to disconnect me from any stress I might be feeling.
    • Trousers and shirts: These are the tricky things, and as they need the deep concentration if I’m not going to miss a part or burn the cloth, I am forced to pay full attention to the task at hand.
    • Sheets and duvet covers: At this point when I’m relaxed and highly attuned to the movement of cloth and machine, I can take my time and let my thoughts drift while my hands do the work.
  3. Admire the results – One of the rewards of raking gravel in a Zen garden is later sitting and looking at it, so if you don’t admire the neatly folded pile of sheets and crisp shirts on hangers then you are getting only half the benefit of the active meditation.

Apart from ironing, sweeping, and doing the dishes, other household chores that I’ve turned into active meditation include: weeding the garden, shoveling snow off the driveway, raking leaves, and even painting the house.

The next time you groan at the thought of the pile of ironing waiting for you to get around to, or the latest snowstorm demanding your attention, try looking at it as a chance to meditate and free yourself from the stresses and cares that have been building up inside you.

Conference handouts: do you ever refer to them?

If you have ever been to a conference, I’m sure you’ve received more than your fair share of handouts and other paper, from the organizing body, speakers and vendors. Plus you’ll also have whatever notes you take.

Conferences sometimes can feel like the New Year, a perfect time for resolutions, vows and promises to ourselves about what we’ll get right to work on when we’re back at our desks. But like most New Year resolutions, our good intentions get buried in the day-to-day details and mini-crises that make up a normal workday.

Years ago, in my most minimalist stage, I refused any and all handouts, relying on my memory. I had the theory that if a presentation didn’t cause a strong enough impression that it stuck in my brain, it wasn’t of much importance or priority to me.

The there are those who go to the other extreme, not just collecting everything they can, but also organizing and archiving it so that they can access the information at any point in the future. My mother was the latter type and although she didn’t refer back to every piece of information from every conference, she quite often pulled out some useful tidbit or other when working on a new project.

I just got back from a conference in Barcelona where I learned a lot about things that we are either in the process of implementing or could introduce at work. And since I’m no longer so minimalist, I took copious notes and after getting home, I downloaded the handouts/presentations of each of the sessions I attended. I was also given marketing material about products and processes the vendors offered. Between paper and electronic documents, I probably have a full day’s reading.

Assuming I actually look at it all, which I won’t.

I will hold onto my own notes and the presentation notes until I finish the projects we are working on that prompted me going to the conference. And the marketing materials will go straight into the recycling bin as will materials about the conference itself.

That’s me though. I don’t have a filing cabinet, or even a single drawer. I hate collecting paper. (Okay yes, I am still a minimalist at heart.) If you are someone who does like to hold onto information, however, here are some things to think about when it comes to deciding what to keep:

  1. Determine what part of your job the handout relates to. Make a note of it on the handout and store it with your other files on the same topic.
  2. If it’s not connected to anything you currently do, is it something you want to try in the future? If so, create a “future plans” document on your computer and add the basic ideas to it. Toss out what you picked up from the conference,, because when you finally get around to the idea, it’s highly likely you’ll need to research the topic again to find out the latest advances.
  3. Are you ever involved in running events? I am, so parts of my notes include my impression of the conference itself: what they did well and what wasn’t quite so good. I put these notes in with my event planning files (which in my case are all electronic — I really do hate paper).
  4. Record the vendor details in your preferred contact management system, along with a note about why you might be interested in working with them, and get rid of the marketing materials. Vendors are always happy to provide you with new information at any time (which these days can almost always be found online).

What do you do with conference handouts? Have I missed anything? Share your tricks and tips in the comments.