Creating a personal strategic plan

Setting goals, working on projects, and tackling action items are three things I do on a regular basis to keep my work and personal life afloat. They’re the backbone of what I refer to as the Daily Grind.

The Daily Grind doesn’t happen by accident, though. I’m not a person who sits around and lets things fall into her lap or wish for the perfect opportunity to open up to me. I try to have purpose to my actions and am proactive in my dealings. Because of my desire to live with purpose, guiding my Daily Grind is a personal Strategic Plan. Much like a Strategic Plan that guides a business, my plan guides who I want to be. It keeps me on track, helps me reach my goals, and keeps me from feeling like I’m in a rut or walking through life as a zombie.

Similar to how a business creates a Strategic Plan, I created a plan for myself. In the book How Organizations Work by Alan Brache, strategy is defined as “the framework of choices that determine the nature and direction of an organization.” If you replace the words “an organization” with “my life” you get a solid idea of a personal Strategic Plan.

Brache continues in his book to discuss how to create an effective Strategic Plan for a business. Building on his ideas, but with a bent toward the personal, I created the following process for how to create my plan and how you can create a plan, too.

Five steps to living with a personal Strategic Plan

  1. Collect data and analyze your current situation. What are your strengths? (The book Now, Discover Your Strengths can help you answer this question.) How do you process information? What in your life do you love? What activities in your life do you look forward to or wish you had more time to complete? What are the activities you loathe and want to get out of your life completely or reduce dramatically? What competes for your attention? What are your core beliefs and how does your life reflect those ideals? Do you like the things you say you like, or is habit guiding your behavior?
  2. Make the tough choices. How far into the future are you willing to work with this Strategy? (I recommend no more than three years.) Review the data you collected and analyzed in the first stage, and put into words your core beliefs that under no circumstance are you willing to break. State what obligations in your life you must fulfill. State your strengths and which of these should continually be highlighted in your life. What stands out the most in your life as being the positive force for your actions? More than anything else, what makes you happy?
  3. Communicate (draft) your personal Strategic Plan. Put into words the plan that will guide your Daily Grind. Write it in words that you understand and trigger memories of why and how you chose your plan. Your Strategic Plan isn’t a mission statement, it can fill more than one sentence of text. It probably won’t be a 20+ page document like many businesses create, but it should be at least a page or two containing the gist of your vision. Be realistic and let the document wholly reflect who you are and who you want to be. This is just for you, not anyone else, so let it speak to and for you.
  4. Work with your Strategic Plan as your guide. Make decisions about how you spend your time and all aspects of your Daily Grind under the guidance of your plan. Try your best to keep from straying outside the bounds of your Strategic Plan. Live with purpose.
  5. Monitor and maintain your Strategic Plan. Sometimes life throws us a wrench when we were looking for puppies and rainbows. Or, something even better than you ever imagined can happen. Update and monitor these changes and see if your Strategic Plan needs to be altered as a result. If no major change has taken place, evaluate your performance within your plan and check to see if you’re getting lazy and letting things slide. Maybe you realize that your plan wasn’t broad enough, or maybe it was too specific. It’s your plan, so work to keep it healthy.

Ideas and Suggestions

What you choose to put into your plan is a deeply personal choice and how your plan looks is as unique as your finger print. If you’re looking for ideas or suggestions to get you started, consider the following:

  • Your relationship with your children, spouse, parents, siblings, friends.
  • Your spiritual and philosophical beliefs, how you practice those beliefs, and how you incorporate them into your daily life.
  • Your career goals and how much energy and focus you choose to commit to these achievements.
  • Your time and how you choose to spend it.
  • Your health and your objectives regarding your health.

Your strategic plan shouldn’t be a list of goals about these topics, but rather the guiding philosophies behind those goals. For instance, if in your Daily Grind you have action items about losing five pounds, those action items might reflect your Strategic Plan: “I enjoy the time and active relationship I have with my growing children. Staying healthy and in good physical condition allows me to have energy for this time with my children and allows me to work when I’m at work. Good health also is one way that I can work to have more years with those I love. It is important to me that I make healthy choices with regard to nutrition and exercise.”

Do you have a Strategic Plan? Does it help to keep clutter — especially time and mental clutter — from getting out of control? If you haven’t written a personal Strategic Plan before, do you think this is a tool that can help you?

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Tools of the Trade

Do you keep a stapler on your desk? How often do you use it?

What about the other objects taking up real estate on your desk? How many items could live in desk drawers or cupboards instead of on your work surface?

If the top of your desk is cluttered, start by looking at all of the equipment, peripherals, and doo-dads occupying space and decide if some of the objects could find better homes someplace else.

I started this post by mentioning the stapler because most people don’t use them on a regular basis. Paper clips, photocopiers that staple documents automatically, and double-sided printing have reduced the amount of stapling people do at their desks. Clearing the stapler — or broken printer or obsolete Rolodex or whatever you are not using on a daily basis — off of your desk and storing it in a desk drawer is a simple way to give yourself more work space. Except the broken printer… feel free to get rid of that altogether!

You don’t have to make your desk sparse and uninviting, but giving yourself room to move can help boost your productivity by clearing distractions and frustrations from your line of sight. Are there objects on your desk that don’t belong to you? Do you have a small collection of dirty coffee cups and used utensils? What can you do right now to clear the clutter and create a more useful work environment?

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

How can you use a freezer to help with meal planning?

This is the second in a two-part series on how you can use a deep freezer to help with meal planning.

As I mentioned yesterday, we see meal planning as the best process for planning healthy meals, creating a simple shopping list, and avoiding the stressful “what’s for dinner” moment in front of the open refrigerator. A meal plan helps to keep clutter out of your body, and streamlines your at-home eating.

One of the ways you can use a freezer to help with meal planning is by vacuum sealing foods you buy in bulk. If you don’t own a product like a FoodSaver Vacuum Sealer, using freezer-safe zip-top bags and squeezing out as much air as possible can work as well. To get the air out of a zip-top bag, close the bag except for an inch at one of the corners. Submerge the exterior of the bag in water almost to the top of the bag. Let the pressure of the water release air from around your food, and then quickly close the last inch at the top of the bag. Be careful not to let any of the water into the bag and onto your food.

The way we use our FoodSaver is pretty straightforward. We start by buying fish filets, beef filets, chicken breasts, roasts, ground turkey, some pork cuts, and usually one or two other meat items based on what is freshest at our butcher’s shop. (If you buy half a cow from a CSA or another animal in larger portion, ask to have the meat butchered for you. My butcher does the vacuum sealing for his customers for a small fee.) Then, we head to our farmer’s market or grocery store and pick up some lettuces and other vegetables that are in season. We buy what we know we like and will use in the next three months.

After shopping, we go home and divide everything up into meal-size portions (we’ll put two fish filets in one vacuum bag, for example). We seal up the storage bags, adhere a piece of masking tape with the date written on it, and throw them all in the freezer. Well, except for the vegetables we want to eat fresh and the lettuces. Lettuces should never be frozen — you don’t want to freeze vegetables with high water content. When you put meat into their bags, you also can add marinades in with the food and they can absorb flavors during the time in the freezer.

When I create my meal plan, I “go shopping” in my freezer and see what I have and what meals I can create from the food in the freezer. I write down what meat I need to pull out of the freezer and transfer it into the refrigerator to thaw two days in advance. (Never thaw meat or fish on the counter.) Vegetables I usually don’t thaw ahead of time.

How do you use your freezer to keep meal planning simple? I’m looking forward to getting our deep freezer and having the convenience of being able to buy more in bulk than we already do.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Can a deep freezer save you money on meals?

This is the first in a two-part series on how you can use a deep freezer to help with meal planning.

Eating nutritious food is essential for my health. If I eat more than two high-fat, low nutrition meals in a week it takes longer for me to heal after injury and my energy level plummets. For most of us, more than two high-fat, low nutrition meals in a week also adds unwanted pounds and can mess with our hearts and arteries. The easiest way I’ve found to keep on track with healthy eating is to have the majority of my meals at home where I can control the ingredients.

On Unclutterer, we’ve written in the past about how to make eating at home easier with meal planning techniques. The process allows you to plan for healthy meals, create a simple shopping list, and avoid the stressful “what’s for dinner” moment in front of the open refrigerator.

Since our meal planning article initially ran, I’ve received dozens of emails asking if we use a deep freezer in addition to the refrigerator/freezer we have in our kitchen. We currently don’t have one, but it is something we discuss a couple times a month. One of the questions we’ve been trying to answer is if the expense of the deep freezer plus the cost of the electrical energy to run it is less than the amount we spend buying in smaller portions and driving more frequently to our butcher and local market.

Then, a PR guy from Frigidaire sent me a press release, and instantly I could ask someone all of my weird deep freezer questions. (I am certain this guy thinks I am one of the strangest contacts he’s ever made.)

So, to start off our brief series on using deep freezers for meal planning, I want to address my initial question of cost. Is it financially prudent to own and use a deep freezer?

Sticker shock?

The commonly purchased model chest style deep freezer is around $600. Upright freezers cost considerably more than chest freezers. If we were to buy one, we would go for a small chest freezer (under 10 cu. ft.), which has an MSRP of about $300.

Most freezers use between 100 and 400 W of power per day. This translates to roughly $175 of electricity per year depending on the size of freezer and your electricity rates. I would have a difficult time justifying the expense of a larger freezer solely based on convenience. But, if I lived in a rural area and shopped less frequently, had kids and more mouths to feed, then the increased costs would be reasonable.

The cost of food

To get a good comparison of food prices in bulk versus smaller portions, I want to look at the price of beef. I know not everyone eats beef, but I had to pick something to compare and beef figures are easily obtained.

I purchase my beef from an organic butcher who gets the majority of his stock from regional farms. In his butcher shop, I can order half a cow twice a year (butchered and vacuum sealed into meal-size portions) or I can make weekly trips into his shop to buy cuts of beef as I need them. Half a cow roughly translates to about $5 per pound, and beef I buy on a weekly basis usually starts at $5 per pound on sale and can be as much as $30 per pound for premium cuts. Without argument, it is cheaper to buy half a cow and freeze the bulk meat than it is to buy weekly.

Even if you don’t buy your meat from an organic butcher and pay grocery store prices, you’ll still spend more than $5 per pound for a cut of beef.

Final answer

Ultimately, the expense of a deep freezer plus the cost of the electrical energy to run it is less than the amount we’re currently wasting when we buy our food in smaller portions. My final answer is that it is financially prudent for us to purchase a deep freezer and buy in bulk.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Creative ways to get rid of clutter

Two of my dear friends moved from Washington DC to California. At their going away party, they gave gifts to all of the attendees — literal parting gifts.

In the parking lot of their apartment complex after the party, my husband and I decided to open our gifts. Both boxes were filled to the brim with ephemera. My box included: 3 yen, a knitted mitten Christmas tree ornament, 4 ticket stubs, a scratched CD, a bright pink magnet in the shape of a button, and about a pound more stuff. My husband’s box held: a broken Palm Pilot, a cracked copy of Microsoft Excel, a sticker that said “I used to be punk rock,” and two handfuls of other random trinkets.

The next day, I called my friends to find out about these special packages. They explained that as they were packing their lives for the move, there were items in their apartment that they knew they should throw out but couldn’t get themselves to do it.

“We had bizarre emotional attachments to all of the objects in the boxes,” one of the two explained. “We couldn’t throw the stuff away, so we wrapped it up to give to you and the others.”

“You know we all just tossed or recycled the stuff in the boxes, right?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “But giving the stuff away as gifts was the only way we could get rid of it.”

“I get it,” I said, not really getting it at all.

A few days later, the idea started to resonate with me. Whatever it took to get the clutter out of their future home was a good idea to me. Seeing as I had no attachment to any of the objects in my gift box, I tossed and recycled the stuff immediately. A few conversations with other friends from the party, and I found that they did the same. The stuff had been dealt with and was out of my moving friends’ lives. The process of uncluttering was unconventional, but effective.

Have you encountered or tried a non-traditional uncluttering method? What do you think of my friends’ ephemera boxes as a method of getting rid of clutter — especially clutter with a misplaced emotional pull to keep? Any suggestions for how to say goodbye to clutter in a creative way? We would love to read your ideas in the comments!

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Weekend Project: Trash can clean up

If you’re anything like me, you rarely, if ever, think about the trash cans. Maybe if one tips over you’ll think about it, but, for the most part, they’re mentally invisible.

Earlier this week, however, I noticed that my outdoor trash can was stinky. I have no idea what foul thing crawled in there and died, but “maliciously odorous” would aptly explain its stench.

I thought that I’m likely not the only one in such smelly circumstances, and came up with the idea to make a weekend project out of cleaning my cans. So, if you’re looking for a weekend project idea, maybe a trash can clean up is for you, too?

Gather up all of your trash cans (indoor and outdoor) and set them in a paved location near a drain (or take them to a self-service car wash if convenient). Squirt a bit of dishwashing detergent into each can, and then fill the bottoms with a few inches of water. Let the cans soak for at least 15 minutes, give them a good scrub with a long handled brush, and then dump out the water. Rinse them well, let them dry in the weekend sun, and then put them back in place.

Your nose will most certainly thank you!

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Reader question: Clothes closet organization

Reader Lisa Z. sent us the following question:

I am OCD, and I thrive on order. I have crazy organization of my closet, which includes organizing all my shirts first by sleeve length (all sleeveless shirts together, all regular-sleeved shirts together, all 3/4 and long-sleeved shirts together, and all t-shirts together), then by color (1st white, then light grey, then to darker grey, then starting with lightest red going to darkest red through the colors of the rainbow). I have four sets of rainbows in my closet, although I have gone back and forth between one rainbow sorted by sleeve length (which didn’t last long). I have 14 pairs of blue jean pants. I know; the first thing you’re going to tell me is that I shouldn’t have THAT MANY pairs of jeans. That is in addition to the number of skirts, shorts, and other-colored pants I own. But I sort even my jeans in order from lightest shade of blue to darkest shade of blue. The question: Do you think this is a waste of time, or do you recommend sorting clothes this way to find exactly what you’re looking for in a snap? It has always worked for me, but I am just barely starting to catch on to the possibility that this might be a waste of time… Thanks so much and keep up the great work on the blog!

Lisa, I don’t have OCD, and I organize my closet in a very similar manner. My exception to this is that I store my jeans and t-shirts folded in a dresser instead of hanging in my closet. My t-shirts are in piles of tank tops, short sleeves, and long sleeves in my drawer.

I’m also a stickler about all of my shirts facing the same way on the hanger.

Organizing my closet this way allows me to quickly match outfits, easily get dressed in the dark, and my husband doesn’t complain about having to share a closet with me. It may be overkill, but it works.

How about our readership? How do you organize your clothes in your closet?

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Say goodbye to perfume clutter

I like the idea of perfume, but have never really supported the whole “signature scent” concept. Wearing the same fragrance day after day isn’t my style, so I usually just go without perfume because it costs a lot to have many options. I also don’t want a whole dresser top full of large glass bottles tempting my cats. I find, too, that after a year or two the perfume goes stale and loses its oomph!

Reader Amanda sent us a terrific idea for men and women wanting to get rid of large bottle cologne and perfume clutter. Similar to the Use it up! advice reader Elena sent us for shampoo, Amanda’s suggestion is to only purchase perfume in very small amounts through websites like LuckyScent and ThePerfumedCourt:

“This keeps the price low, I can try different perfumes (some not available locally), and I hide them in a box in a dresser drawer, freeing (uncluttering) the top of my dresser.”

LuckyScent has an option at the bottom of every page of perfume that gives you the choice to purchase a sample (0.7mL.). They even offer sample packs; groups of popular or seasonal fragrances.

And, ThePerfumedCourt only sells trial sizes:

“What we do is spray, pour, or use sterile pipettes to take perfume from its original large bottle and repackage it in a smaller bottle (we only use brand new sterile glass bottles) so that the consumer can try as many fragrances as they desire before buying a full bottle.”

Thank you, Amanda, for such a terrifically simple idea for men and women who choose to wear a fragrance!

Be organized after an auto accident

I have a friend who was unfortunately involved in two car accidents a few years ago. When the accidents occurred, she was obviously disoriented and under a great deal of anxiety. Days later, after being able to think about what had happened, she wished that she would have been more organized during the events. After both accidents, she realized that she had forgotten to write down important information like the license plate numbers of the other cars.

Wanting not to be caught off guard again, she created a worksheet to keep in the glove compartment of her car in the same folder as her insurance card and registration. (If you do not have Adobe Reader, you can download it here.) This is a situation when being organized can help you greatly.

At the time she had her accidents, she recommended carrying a small, digital camera to photograph the accident scene. Today, most people have smartphones that will not only take high quality photos, but video as well. Just remember to keep your phone charged!

Now, let us hope that you never have to use this worksheet! If you do, however, rest assured that you’ll be organized and you won’t forget to gather any important information.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Reader question: Move or store furniture?

Reader Lisa emailed us the following question:

I am moving across the country (probably just for a few years), and would like to take just the essentials. However, I have three large pieces of antique furniture bequeathed by my grandmother that I can definitely see wanting to have in a more permanent house when I move back in the future. So… what do I do with them for the next few years? (Or am I deluding myself — will I ever want them?)

Lisa, your question brings up a number of different issues, so bear with me while I take a few twists and turns to get to a definitive answer.

To start, you seem more uncertain about life than you do about a few pieces of furniture. You use the phrase “probably just for a few years,” which speaks volumes about why this decision is difficult for you. Stop thinking about a possible future, and focus on right now. Are you moving across country? Yes. Do you want to take this furniture with you? No.

Since you don’t want to move the furniture across country, you need to decide what to do with it. Is there someone else in your family who could use the furniture now? What would the repercussions be in your family if you sold the furniture to an antique dealer and used the money to set up your new home on the other coast? If someone would be upset that you sold the furniture, are they willing to take it off your hands? (If not, do not allow them to guilt you into keeping it.)

Maybe you love the furniture, and are considering storing it in self-storage? The reality is that you would likely pay $100 a month to put the three pieces of furniture into a storage locker. If you stay on the other coast for three years, then you’ll have spent at least $3,600 in rent for unused furniture. Would you pay that amount to buy this furniture if you saw it in a store? Could you even insure the furniture for that amount? The possibility also exists that you’ll love the other coast and decide to stay out there permanently. If this happens, then you’ll either continue to pay to store the furniture or you’ll have to pay to have it shipped across country. Whatever way you look at it, using a public storage facility will cost you … and it will probably cost you stress and worry in addition to the price tag.

The future is uncertain, but the present isn’t. If I were you, I’d give the pieces to someone in the family who wants them more than you do. You can admire the furniture every time you visit that family member, and know that it is being useful. And, remember, it’s just furniture, it’s not your grandmother.

 

This post has been updated since its original post in 2008.

Try giving your refrigerator a facelift

My refrigerator is not magnetic. I have no idea what the previous owners of my house did to it to make it that way, but that is its fate. I learned this the hard way, too, sticking magnet after magnet onto it and watching them fall to the floor. I was mesmerized. How could a magnet not stick to the refrigerator? What kind of a person would want a non-magnetic refrigerator?

Now that I’ve been in my house for many years, I’ve come to appreciate the refrigerator and its plain front. Most notably, I value it because there isn’t any clutter on it — no softball schedules from last season, no warped photos, no magnets with unknown real estate agents’ faces staring back at me. Its clean front actually helps to keep my stress level at bay when I’m in the kitchen. The previous owners of my home were more wise than I had given them credit.

If someone would have ever suggested that I could live without magnets on my refrigerator, I would have thought them batty. So, I will not be surprised if in the comments section people write about my sanity (or, rather, lack of sanity). I am making that very suggestion to you, though. Try clearing off the front of your refrigerator and develop other, less cluttered alternatives to distributing information in your home.

If you must use the front of your refrigerator for this purpose, then use something like a perpetual dry-erase calendar hung with Command poster strips. Command also makes refrigerator clips specially designed for hanging papers (like children’s artwork). These could also be used on other kitchen surfaces such as hanging a recipe on a ceramic tile backsplash. Lulalu makes a weekly calendar pad block that cling sticks to smooth surfaces such as stainless steel fridges, mirrors, and school lockers. Also, you could buy a few easy-change artwork frames and swap out your children’s artwork and well-executed homework on your wall instead of on your refrigerator. Honor their good work instead of losing it in a mish-mash of refrigerator madness. Give a magnet-free refrigerator a try and see how it improves the feel of your kitchen.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Recycling bins don’t have to be messy

Reader Jameselee drew our attention to the June article “How to Hide Recycling Bins in Your Kitchen” from Popular Mechanics magazine.

It makes sense to find convenient and attractive ways to cope with the typical household’s revolving collection of cans, glass bottles and newspapers, since recycling has become an everyday reality.

Whether you’re planning from scratch or improving an existing setup, the first decision is what room to use for storing the stuff. The kitchen is ideal, given that it’s where most glass and plastic containers get used, but kitchen space is often at a premium. Other options are the pantry, garage, laundry room or mudroom.

The article provides a number of ideas for visible and hidden storage, even though the word “hide” is in the title. I particularly enjoyed the following drawing from the article:

The company simplehuman has quite a few stylish trash/recycle bin combinations. Some can be hidden in a cupboard, others can be placed on the floor. A ClosetMaid four drawer basket kit could be hidden inside a closet.

Do you disguise or hide recycling in your home? What techniques do you use? How do you keep this area from looking cluttered and out of control?

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.