Plan projects with a Work Breakdown Structure

I enjoy leading a project. Setting the goal, defining scope, and then using my favorite piece of the planning process: creating a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).

Before you get to who’s going to do what and the schedule, the WBS allows you to take a project and break it into smaller, more manageable pieces. You end up with an organized, visual display of the main pieces of your project.

How it works: Once you define your final date for the project, your next step is to define the scope or magnitude of that project. How big is it? What will the project include? If your goal is to have a wedding by June 30, 2009, your scope might include dinner, invitations, decorations, entertainment, and a ceremony.

To further define the scope, a WBS offers a system to map out the work in detail. A simple way to think about it is by asking: What are the key deliverables — tangible and intangible things — that will result from the project? What will it take to get the project done?

A WBS also includes a logical list of tasks, that when completed, roll up to the deliverable. For example, the entertainment deliverable for the wedding event above might look like this:

1.0 Entertainment
– 1.1 Research bands.
– 1.2 Select band.
– 1.3 Create preferred song list.

The beauty of the WBS is that it can be used for relatively small projects (like organizing your garage), as well as large projects (like developing a piece of software).

You can create a WBS in most of the project software tools out there, or you can create one of your own on paper or in a document program like Word. On the work front, a WBS can be part of your project planning for anything from an office move to building a bridge. The more complex the project is, the more useful the WBS is to ensure that the main pieces of the project puzzle are captured.

Do you use WBSs on your projects? Let us know your experience in the comments area.

Alternative uses for coasters

The next time you’re out at a pub drinking a pint of Guinness with your pals, pocket a few cardboard beer coasters to take home with you. Once you get home, put them to use as buffers from liquid dribbles in your refrigerator and cabinets.

The coasters can live under items like soy sauce, steak sauce, and honey. The flat cardboard surfaces have just the right absorbency to prevent messy, hard-to-clean-up spills.

What alternative uses have you found for beer coasters?

Additionally, have a safe and happy St. Patrick’s Day from all of us at Unclutterer.

Increase productivity with voice recognition software

I’m talking to my computer right now. I’m speaking these words — rather than typing them — and watching them appear in my Word document.

I’m using a program called Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a voice recognition software program by Nuance. I bought a version of it last summer when I strained my wrists typing. Then, it was a necessity, and now it’s a convenience.

It’s a useful tool because Nuance claims that people type an average of 35 words a minute with only 58 percent accuracy, but speak 120 words per minute. The company’s Senior Vice President Peter Mahoney said, “When you type, the accuracy rate is abysmal because people get good at using the backspace key.”

If you type 35 or fewer words a minute, then an increase to 120 words would significantly improve productivity. If you’re already typing more than 100 words a minute, though, you may not notice such significant gains in speed.

Edit your work carefully, though. When the software is getting used to your voice and style, it may write something other than what you intended. For example, when you’re writing about rich, sweet, frozen, dairy products it may type, “I scream” instead of the correct “ice cream.” But, the more you use it and correct mistakes, the greater the accuracy.

It also scans for context. Mahoney said, “Dragon doesn’t understand what you’re saying but does understand the likelihood of words appearing near other words. It picks the appropriate word such as ‘over there’ not ‘over their.'” You can actively adapt Dragon to your writing style. Just point the software toward e-mails and reports you’ve written and let it analyze them. That allows Dragon to do a better job of knowing what words you tend to use, and can improve accuracy.

The Professional and Preferred editions include a feature called Voice Shortcuts. With Shortcuts, you can tell the program, “Search the web for Italian restaurants in Chicago,” and your default browser will open and start searching. You can also go to specific websites. For instance, you can say, “Search eBay for MP3 Player,” and it will search eBay.

While Windows Vista offers basic free voice recognition software built into the operating system, Dragon out-performs Vista with its speed.

Dragon requires some PC strength, so make sure your system meets the minimal specifications. On Amazon, you can find the standard version of the software for $54.99. Dragon is not available for Macs, but Nuance offers a similar program called Dictate. I’m not a regular user of Dictate, so I can’t speak to its performance.

Do you use Dragon NaturallySpeaking or another voice recognition software? Let us know about your experiences in the comments area.

This Valentine’s day, make a change

As we talked about in the post Ask Unclutterer: How can I change someone into an unclutterer?” we get many emails asking how unclutterers can live with clutterers. It reminds me of one of those light bulb jokes: How many Psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change.

Our clutterful light bulbs — our roommates, significant others — may not want to change. But, there is something that we can change, ourselves.

If you’re up for the challenge, what small unclutterer change or efficiency enhancer are you willing to make? If you’re stumped, think about your partner’s pet peeves. Some examples I’ve seen with couples are:

  • Dropping a jacket on the floor when arriving home
  • Leaving dishes about the house
  • Losing keys frequently

These things may not bug you, but we’re talking about our partners here — the things that bother them. As I got to thinking about Valentine’s Day this year, and realizing my husband hates gifts, I thought: how about changing something I do that bothers him? I ran the idea past him and he’s all for it. We decided that I will work on keeping the house better stocked with groceries. I’ll sit down with him and templatize a specific list of items to regularly have on hand (in addition to the staples). It’s the little things that make a difference.

Forming a New Habit

First, it takes 21 days to form a new habit. I like to use 30 day blocks, however, to be sure the habit gets locked in.

Start Small: Pick just one daily, do-able thing that you’ll take on for 30 days. For example, you commit to putting your clothes in the hamper before bed for the next 30 days. Selecting one thing will put all of your focus there, rather than trying to tackle several habits at once.

Be Clear: Be sure that you know clearly whether you’ve accomplished the task or not. For example, is your goal to file paper in your home office for 10 minutes each day or is it to file 1/2 an inch of paper each day? Near dinner time each day, mine will be to check off food items that need to be purchased this week.

Track Progress: Use a calendar, goal-setting software such as Lifetick or create a spreadsheet with 30 boxes to track your progress. A check mark or gold star means you did the task. Leaving the box blank of course means you didn’t do it.

Keep It Visible: Have your document pop up on your screensaver, set reminders in your electronic calendar or place in another visible place, such as on the refrigerator. As you’re forming a new habit, you’ll need prompts.

Be Consistent: When possible, do the task at the same time every day. This will make the action a routine and, in time, you’ll be pulled to complete it automatically. For instance, pop your jacket into the closet right away when you arrive home each day.

Begin: The hardest part is to begin. Pick a start day. Today is a good idea so that you don’t build up resistance to change. And, why wait to surprise your partner with a clean family room or an uncluttered car?

I think creating a productive habit will give you more mileage than your standard Valentine’s Day gifts.

Up for the challenge? What habit do you want to take on for 30 days? Let us know in the comments. And, if you choose to go a more traditional route, check out Matt’s post from last week on uncluttered Valentine’s day gifts.

Creating a central binder for your home

As much as I tend to store information digitally, slips of paper still manage to sweep into our home, such as gym schedules, school lunch menus, and event flyers. That is why I have set up a central home binder. It offers a safe haven for important papers, vital contacts for anyone to access, and a receptacle for health information.

I personally set up a very simple system for less than $15. Here is how to create one of your own:

First, decide what categories best reflect the kind of information you refer to often and that you want to store in your central home binder. Categorize by type of information or by family members’ names, or both. I keep my categories to five or less for simplicity — I don’t want the binder to be an overstuffed catch-all for everything.

The Categories (one per binder tab):

  • Contacts
  • Health & Fitness
  • Food
  • House
  • Travel

The Tools:

  • Simple Binder
  • Tabs
  • Plastic Pockets for In Between Tabs

Simple Binder

Select a binder size to match the number of categories and size you think you’ll need. Unless you have many people sharing the binder, a 1 to 1.5-inch binder should do. I use a simple, 1-inch binder with a plastic cover that’s sturdy yet malleable. It’s easy to squeeze it in between cookbooks in a cabinet beneath the kitchen counter.

Tabs

Use the number of tabs to match your categories. I purchased a package of five by Avery with large, easy-to-read tabs and printer-friendly labels.

Plastic Pockets for In Between Tabs

Some sheets that come into our home will simply be 3-hole punched and placed in the binder, such as a sports schedule. But others, like smaller pieces of paper, can be stored in clear pockets.

Filing Suggestions

Contacts: Keep a list of emergency contacts here. Phone trees, especially for your child’s classmates, are great since entering everyone into your address book would be unnecessary. Permission slips can go in the front pocket, too.

Food: Insert standard shopping lists and meal planning worksheets in this section.

Health and Fitness: A blank sheet of paper to record prescriptions fits nicely under this tab. Note which prescriptions need to be renewed and when. Jot down free medication sample names so that you know who and what they’re for in case you need a full prescription. Use pockets to insert doctors’ notes. Store exercise programs and fitness class schedules here also.

House: The section pocket is a great place to temporarily store recent house maintenance receipts for things like plumbing bills. That way, you have quick-access to the information in the event of a repeating issue. Also include cleaning checklists in this section.

Travel: If you employ a babysitter, this is a good section to include maps to locations your children may have to travel while you’re not at home. Google maps directions to music lessons and sports practices are appreciated by the people who aren’t a regular part of your routine. If you have frequent house guests, store a city map in this section to easily have on hand.

What systems have you used for your home-central information? Let us know in the comments, we are curious to know what has worked best for you.

2008 Gift Giving Guide: Gifts of clutter

It’s the holiday season, and we all need a little smile. Similar to our Unitasker Wednesday posts, we don’t want you to buy these items. We simply want you to have fun reading about all the awful gifts of clutter you wouldn’t really want to give this year.

Stumped on what to buy your favorite co-worker or loved one? Consider giving the gift of clutter!

Small Kitchen Appliances

Your mother-in-law hates coffee? No matter. Buy her an espresso maker anyway. Get the deluxe version equipped with steamer and grinder. It’ll take up lots of counter space and you can use it when you visit. Heck, buy her two!

Knick Knacks

If you really want to yank the chain of the minimalist in your life, buy knick knack gifts. These small shelf stuffers fit any budget. You can get a $1 replica of the Statue of Liberty. Inexpensive gifts not your style? Consider the pricey gem-studded Hello Kitty figurine for $163,000.00. (image from boredbored.com)

Arcade-Style Video Games

Who needs Rock Band when you can go retro and deliver a full size, 300-pound Ms. Pac-man to an eager child or adult? Cram it into the living room of a tiny studio appartment for easy entertainment. A fun and educational experience on the history of video games can be had by all.

Obscure Art

Who says you can’t impose your own artistic tastes onto others? Let’s face it, some people in your life need your artful guidance. At big box stores, garage sales, or art galleries, look for bizarre sculptures, abstract paintings, or anything that would leave the recipient asking: “What is it?”

A Pile of Boulders

For your suburbia-dwelling friends, don’t forget the garden. Call your local rock quarry and have a truck dump off a pile of rocks on your friend’s driveway. They’ll have hours of fun trying to pick up the boulders, one-by-one, and finding the perfect garden spot for each to occupy.

Hard-to-Use Electronic Equipment

For the technically challenged on your list, give the gift of complex electronics that will end up tucked away on a garage shelf. Universal remotes that require setup on a computer and web access are an option. Challenge the recipient to sit with the manual until he or she figures out how to program it.

Giant Vases

In his post Too many flower vases, Matt asked: “So what can I do with all of these vases?” There is no need to get rid of them when you can let them collect dust in a cabinet! Add to your friends and family members’ collections with a giant vase to obstruct the entrance through any front door.

Really, the possibilities are endless when it comes to lovely clutter gifts. Large, small, expensive, cheap — clutter gifts span the world over and can easily provide a lifetime of dust, maintenance, and storage fees for your most treasured friends.

What is the most outrageous clutter gift you’ve ever received? Let us know about it in the comments.

Unexpected benefits of uncluttering: An interview with editor Erin Doland

Sue Brenner, PCC, PMP, and author of The Naked Desk, is a regular contributor to Unclutterer. She recently sat down with Unclutterer editor Erin Doland to learn about her path to simple living, and decided to let you in on the conversation that took place.

Clearing out the excess clutter in your life has parallel benefits, sometimes unexpected. Just as each gotten-rid-of item is one less thing in your physical way, it is also one less thing to occupy your thoughts and emotions. You are freed up to focus on the subjects that matter to you without the weight of all that excess stuff getting in the way.

Take Erin, our editor at Unclutterer. She wasn’t born with the orderly gene. (Me either. I didn’t begin to adopt that habit until well into my 20s.) But when the weight of “too much stuff” got too great, Erin was forced to learn how to lighten her load and create order — now she experiences a more enriching life as a result. Here’s her story:

When Erin was in her 20s, she could pack everything she owned except her mattress into her 2-door hatchback. But when the dreaded call from her mom came telling her, “All of your stuff in my house has to go,” Erin suddenly found herself with boxes filled with childhood memorabilia and college life, along with a desire to hang on to it all.

Not ready to let any of it go, she packed it all with her when she moved to Washington, D.C. Later, when she and her husband moved in together, they blended their lives and their things into an even smaller urban apartment. Every room spilled over with so much stuff they had no room to move.

Concerned, Erin’s husband sat her down. “I can’t even take one step,” he said. “We can’t live our lives together this way.”

Looking at all their stuff, Erin couldn’t imagine how they could organize it, and she couldn’t even think about letting any of it go. Just the thought of dealing with any of it stressed her out, but she agreed with her husband that living this way wasn’t an option.

Out of desperation, Erin had become interested in getting organized to set her married life off on the right foot. But with no built-in, natural propensity for organization or lightening her load, Erin had no idea where to begin.

“I could organize an argument for a paper and that was the extent of it,” she pondered, “but I didn’t know how to apply that idea to my home.”

So, Erin decided to do some research and find out. “That’s where my daily inspiration for Unclutterer comes from,” she explained. “I had to learn and I pass on what I learned to others.”

Erin’s first step was to begin to assess what everything was that was cluttering up her home. As she’s written about in previous posts, Erin had kept every note from high school and middle school. Like a mouse collecting morsels, she had kept every trinket that came her way, such as various key chains and t-shirts she had been given at fraternity parties. So much stuff that she had no use for but had packed away at the time because the things seemed worth saving.

“Who knows what I thought I was going to do with all that stuff,” she said. Since it was tough to completely let go of all those memories, she decided to photograph a lot of the stuff — a great strategy for hanging onto the sentiment the thing represented without having to store the thing itself. Erin also realized that she was more likely to go through a photo album on a trip down memory lane than she was to ever go through boxes of stuff.

As Erin’s process continued, she came up with some rules to help her purge things: “If I couldn’t even remember where it came from, it was gone.”

Erin realized that letting stuff go wasn’t just lightening her physical load, but she was also beginning to feel lighter; she realized letting go of the past was allowing her to better move forward with her life. She hadn’t realized how much all that stuff was weighing her down as if she was dragging it all around like a ball and chain around her ankle. She explained: “All that stuff represented my past. I’m now focused on the present and the future with my husband.”

Yes, it was a lot of work — it took Erin about six months to fully unclutter her new dwelling — but as the days progressed into weeks and then months, Erin got better and better at purging all that stuff and began to feel more and more invigorated the closer she got to her goal.

“I have peace of mind now,” she said. “I don’t have that old dread when I leave the house that I will have to come home to that. All that weight is gone. Now my home is a place of relaxation and order; When I come home I get to rejuvenate. There’s a sense of calm.”

That is peace of mind. And confidence too, I’d add. A real sense of accomplishment that feeds all the other areas of your life.

So how has getting uncluttered influenced other areas of your life?

2008 Gift Giving Guide: Experience giving

In last year’s Experience Giving Guide, we listed four ideas for giving experiences rather than things: Pampering, Events, Food and Adventures.

This year we’re adding the gift of your time to the Experience Giving Guide list — and what a beautiful gift it is.

The gift of your time can be to spend an hour, a day, or an evening with the friend or loved one of your choice. You can set up the time for doing activities they enjoy, such as playing video games or taking a walk. Lock away your Blackberry so that you have quality time together without distractions.

Giving time is a good holiday stress reducer, too, because you’ll spend less money. The American Psychological Association names money as the #1 cause of stress over the holidays. With today’s economy, the pressure may be especially apparent this year. You can take yourself off the gift-buying hook by coming up with creative ways to give of your time (which is really giving of yourself).

One great time give-away is to offer a needed service to your gift recipient. Sometimes the things that are second-nature to you are downright hard or impossible for others to do. If it weren’t for my husband, I know that the gas fireplace would still be unusable, but for him it took all of 15 minutes to fix.

You can use your gift of time to help someone address something that would otherwise not get done unless they hired a professional.

What are your skills? Think about what you can do to assist people with time gift packages.

Here are some ideas to get you thinking about how you can offer your time this holiday season:

  • Paint a room
  • Update a resume
  • Plant a garden
  • Design a web page
  • Prepare a specialty meal
  • Take care of children
  • Organize a garage
  • Fix something that is broken

It can be fun to provide a service and spend time with someone.

In October of last year, I was spending time with my dear friend’s Grandma during her final months of life. I enjoyed talking with her and at the same time I wanted to do something useful. She asked me to help her organize her small closet. As we talked, I held up one sweater after another. Each sweater had a story behind it and she would light up, saying, “Oh, I like that one. Isn’t that a nice burgundy?” While she lay in bed, I folded her to-keep sweaters and placed them in a hanging sweater-holder. The others went into a give-away pile. We both really enjoyed the experience and, with her passing, I hold that simple afternoon of chatting and organizing as a treasure.

If you want to make a gift of time, create your own gift certificate. For my two college-going relatives, I printed out: COUPON — Good for One Afternoon of Washing Machine Usage, Tea, and Conversation. I know they’ll redeem that one. And, we’ll have a chance to catch up with each other.

Who could benefit from your gift of time? What ideas do you have for services you can offer as your gift of time?

The 5-, 10-, and 15-minute unclutterer

When it’s hard to carve out an hour or two (or more) to complete an unclutter mission, sometimes we forgo organizing at all.

That’s where the speed unclutterer comes in handy. When your boss is about to drop by your cube or friends have called to say they’re coming right over, uncluttering has to take on velocity. I have found that this works best when you close off all distractions, focus solely on the targeted area, set the timer for 5-, 10- or 15-minute increments and unclutter until the timer dings.

What you do in your 5-, 10- or 15-minute increments depends, of course, on the degree of disarray in the area you plan to unclutter and the system you use. Here are some ideas to get you started. Adjust them according to your situation.

The 5-minute Unclutterer

To know where to begin on a 5-minute uncluttering project, asking yourself questions will sharpen your focus. As I wrote on page 20 in The Naked Desk:

If you have limited time to organize, ask yourself, “What single action would make the greatest impact right now?” Or, “What can I do in five minutes that will make the biggest difference?” Scan the office and choose the area that is calling out for order the most. Then take action!

These questions will help you quickly home in on the area that if you unclutter it, will bring you the greatest relief, serenity or beauty. Overwhelmed? Put a bull’s eye on one corner of the table to get started, rather than trying to conquer the whole thing.

Zen Habits also has a great list of 5-minute uncluttering actions in the article 18 Five-Minute Decluttering Tips to Start Conquering Your Mess.

I love Leo’s tip #6:

Pick up 5 things, and find places for them. These should be things that you actually use, but that you just seem to put anywhere, because they don’t have good places. If you don’t know exactly where things belong, you have to designate a good spot. Take a minute to think it through where would be a good spot? Then always put those things in those spots when you’re done using them. Do this for everything in your home, a few things at a time.

Make a mental note of the new spots for items so you can retrieve them when you need them.

The 10-minute Unclutterer

You can power through a small uncluttering task in 10 minutes or make progress on a larger project.

Admittedly, the morning dishes in our home sometimes get left unwashed as family members dash out the door for work and school. I set the timer daily for 10-minute dish washing blasts — instant sink and counter uncluttering. Other things you can knock out in 10 minutes include:

  • File one inch of paper
  • Organize a book shelf
  • Start a load of laundry

From home to work, there are many 10-minute uncluttering opportunities. For example, you can reserve the last 10 minutes of the day to unclutter your desk to start fresh and clear the next day.

To fend off return-from-home clutter piles, make it a habit to use your first 10 minutes through the door to put things away, such as your umbrella in the umbrella holder, your jacket in the closet and your keys on the landing strip.

The 15-minute Unclutterer

With all that you can accomplish in five or 10 minutes, 15 minutes can make an even bigger dent in clutter. You won’t streamline a bedraggled garage, but you can clear out one box.

When you find yourself with an unexpected block of 15 minutes, you can use the time to clear out clutter from your home or office. For example, you’ve arrived 15 minutes early for a lunch appointment — unclutter your car. Additional ideas:

To unclutter and clean, check out About.com’s Sarah Aguirre article”15 Minute Cleanups.” The article provides cleaning checklists for six different rooms, from the kitchen to a kid’s room.

I put the Bedroom Cleanup checklist to the test one evening from 8:00 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. As I followed each of Aguierre’s steps (except I substituted vacuuming with dusting), the room took on an extra sparkle. (Earrings that had collected on my dresser got returned to their home. I also unpacked my husband’s suitcase from last week’s business trip.) It was fast and easy to run through someone else’s pre-made to-do list. I’m glad I did it and will try her suggestions for other rooms.

Some cluttering projects do take hours, days, or months to finish. But, starting with 5-, 10- or 15-minute uncluttering bursts can give you instant progress. These timed uncluttering sprints are also useful for daily maintenance.

What are you able to get done in 5-, 10- or 15-minute unclutter sprints? Let us know your regular routines in the comments.

Uncluttered public speaking

I’m sure we’ve all attended memorable presentations — some are memorable because they inspire, others because they’re awful. (I’ll never forget my astronomy professor who droned on and on: “One may find that it’s intuitively obvious” and then he’d add a few incomprehensible points about celestial objects.)

If you freeze, stumble, or clutter up your talk with too much information or “um’s,” there may be reasons for that. Most commonly the reasons are: a) you’re not prepared, b) you’re scared, or c) both.

One inspiring speaker I enjoy is Guy Kawasaki — the marketing genius turned venture capitalist known for evangelizing the early Apple Computer. He makes public speaking look easy. What most people don’t realize is the sheer amount of preparation and practice it takes to deliver a good speech. Some natural talent will help, but you won’t win a five-star rating.

I do regular public speaking, and these are the things I’ve learned over the years that have taken me from a “wing it and hope for the best” approach to a system that leads to more quality, less cluttered talks.

Define the Purpose

What is the purpose for giving the speech? Is it to send off a newly married couple with good wishes? To update your department on the status of a project? Before you jump into writing and research, tap into the purpose first.

Know Who Will Be in the Room

Who will be listening to the talk? A group of inebriated wedding guests? A new client? Your boss and your boss’ boss? Knowing who is in the audience will help you to tailor the speech toward them with relevant examples.

Be Familiar with Your Topic

People generally don’t like to hear speeches that are read word-for-word. Make sure you know your material well enough that you can glance at a few bullet points on an index card or a PowerPoint slide. Research well, especially if you’ll be fielding questions.

Stick to One Main Topic

Cramming in every detail you know can lead to a cluttered talk. Keep it simple — center your presentation on one key theme supported by examples. What are the most important ideas to include? The tricky part is deciding what you’ll leave out, not what you’ll put into your speech.

Prepare

Preparation is a great fear reducer. Practice a new talk aloud at least three times. You’ll discover any rough spots that you don’t know well. Pay attention to filler words that you use, such as “um” and “and.” A simple pause can replace these words.

Be Ready to Go

Getting mentally and physically set to go the day of the event also will decrease fear. Practice your opening sentence on the way to the speech. Once you arrive at your speech location, do what you need to do to feel ready. I like to arrive early, drink water, take some deep breaths and go.

Check Out the Environment

It’s wise to check out the space before you speak if you previously haven’t been there. When it’s not possible to see it in advance, explore the environment when you arrive. Where will people be seated? Check the audio and visual equipment to make sure it’s on and working.

Use Clear, Simple Statements to Start and End Powerfully

The beginning and end of your talk are the bookends crucial to a good talk. You can begin with one fact about you, a compelling story or a statistic to draw people into your presentation. Avoid rambling and don’t apologize for being nervous — usually people won’t know.

Remember though, as Guy Kawasaki demonstrated in the clip I previously linked to, you don’t have to be perfect to deliver a good speech. When you’re live in front of a group, connect with the audience and the topic.

What tips do you use for effective, uncluttered public speaking?

Sue Brenner is a regular contributor to Unclutterer. She offers her own eZine at www.actionsymphony.com and if you want to hear her voice, she gives free, monthly goal-success tele-seminars.

Unclog your commute

There’s nothing like entering a jam-packed freeway to add stress to your early morning. Catching a train is great — if you have one in your area. Although, even in places considered to have good public transportation (New York City, Paris, DC, San Francisco), the roads are still clogged with cars.

What can we do to take cars off the road and help unclog everyone’s commute? Private and public efforts are being made across the country to make our roads less cluttered spaces.

Last Thursday, I got the chance to talk to RideSpring founder, Paul McGrath. RideSpring is an online service that helps employees find ride share opportunities with other employees at the same company. We discussed McGrath’s journey from employee to entrepreneur, in his current pursuit to offer web-based alternative commute solutions.

He got the idea in the mid-1990s when he worked as an electrical engineer for a 200 person company in Scotts Valley, CA. He enjoyed an 8-mile bike ride up a narrow, snaky two-lane highway to and from work most days. On driving days, though, he wanted to ride share. “For the days I wasn’t biking,” says McGrath, “I thought it would be good to find a carpool partner.” Why not socialize with a co-worker during the ride and tread more lightly on the road and save a few dollars on fuel?

But, as many commuters know, finding a carpool buddy isn’t always easy. McGrath sought public carpoolings systems first. While he wouldn’t mind sharing his commute information within his company, he didn’t want to post it on public sites. “I looked for a product within companies but it didn’t exist.” This led him to search for (and eventually create) a solution.

He dove into market research and found that regional services attracted very few users, which dramatically limited good ride-matching opportunities. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, frought with highly congested highways, an organization called 511 exists for the public, but fewer than 1% of commuters have signed up for the system.

His research squashed a number of myths about commuters. “It’s a myth that people aren’t willing to leave their cars at home,” say McGrath.

What he discovered is “There’s a shortage of drivers willing to accept passengers, rather than the other way around.”

Another myth he his company is helping to debunk is the notion that carpooling doesn’t work. However, the US Census reports that carpooling for Americans remains the second most popular way to get to work. This is second only to driving alone to work.

After his data collecting, McGrath could see the need to develop an easy-to-use method for commuters.

Rides

McGrath wanted to get cars off the road and make commuting more enjoyable. With his technical background, he launched a web-based system through RideSpring targeted at companies of 500 people or more. When companies subscribe, co-workers can drive to the same company together. The RideSpring system searches possible ride matches through it’s web process that scans zip codes for people riding in their areas across the US.

The statistics are promising. Some of the companies that subscribe to RideSpring show a nearly 60% sign-up rate for the service. People are actually using it.

Rewards

There are intrinsic rewards that come from finding an alternative commute. You get to do your part for the environment, have a good conversation with a coworker, or even get some important work done. With the US Census reporting that 77% of American commuters drive alone, many companies offer financial and other rewards to encourage people to free up road capacity and reduce CO2 omissions. This allows employers to contribute to the environment, reduce the need for new parking lots, and make their employees happier.

McGrath summarizes RideSpring’s services by saying: “What we deliver is effectiveness. We show companies our proven approach to get people signed up. We make it fun and easy to use and employees will actually use it.”

What do you do to unclog your commute? Does your company offer incentives to commuters who carpool or use public transportation? If your company had (has) more than 500 employees, would you consider using a program like RideSpring? Why or why not? Do any of our readers already use this or a similar service?

Sue Brenner is a regular contributor to Unclutterer. She offers her own eZine at www.actionsymphony.com and if you want to hear her voice, she gives free, monthly goal-success tele-seminars.

Are the paths to your goals paved or cluttered?

For the past nine months I’ve been conducting a one-question Internet survey about what blocks people’s goal success. The question I have asked people is: What is the single, biggest obstacle to achieving your goals? The responses have been intriguing.

“Lack of Organization/Too Much Clutter” made it to the Top 5 on the list and it continues to rank as the #5 obstacle to goal success.

Speaking of goals, the National Association of Professional Organizers reports that getting organized also made it to one of the most popular New Year’s Resolutions this year. In early 2008, the President of the organization, Standolyn Robertson, said: “Getting organized is one of the top 5 New Year’s resolutions.”

If getting organized makes it to your list of resolutions in 2009, it could lead to a positive ripple effect. Because, when people clear out clutter, it paves the way for other goals too.

Why does clutter get in the way of goals?

When there’s clutter on our desks and we have to step over the jackets, the laptop case and shoes strewn about the hallway, it’s harder to think and we forget things.

How can you remember a priority project when it’s buried beneath a paper pile as high as your office chair?

For me, an organized workspace (and house for that matter) sharpens how I think and gives me a motivational lift. It’s about progress, not perfection, by the way.

For example, when the surfaces of my workspace are clutter free–yet I still have the tools at hand that I need–I power through things faster, have increased focus, and I feel better at the end of the day. That’s because productivity equals satisfaction. I like to work hard on my priorities.

When things are in the way–mentally or physically–we get slowed down, distracted and derailed. It’s no fun at year’s end to open a mysterious word document that reminds you that you were going to drop 10 pounds and you haven’t made it to the gym all year.

Here are four tips to clear out clutter so that you can remove at least one obstacle to goal success.

Step Back

Assess the space you want to organize, whether it’s your cubicle, garage or kitchen. Take five minutes to picture what you’d like the space to look like. Do you envision a transformation or just a few tweaks?

Create a Big Goal

The big goal represents your organizing ideal. For the garage, maybe that means hiring a custom closet company to build storage shelving and hooks to hang tools. Consider the benefits: peace of mind and clarity.

Do the Tough Thing First

Spot the thing that you dread most. When you look at the file cabinet in the garage bursting with 15 years of taxes, tackle it. Doing the hardest thing first will build momentum and inspire you to move on to more uncluttering.

Set a Small Goal, Too

You’ve made progress by facing the tough thing first. Do another small goal immediately. For instance, sort through two boxes or put all gardening equipment in one area.

Team up with one or more person to help make the process fun. With focus and dedication, all 4 steps are do-able.

Taking a moment to step back will give you a snapshot of what you want before you start. From there, you’ll have the ingredients for your first big goal. Doing the tough thing first allows you to get going fast and sets the stage for overcoming resistance of the things you don’t want to do. Keep going with a series of small goals. As you make progress, you’ll be more organized, and you’ll have more clarity and confidence to maintain your organized life.

What strategies have you used to set and achieve your uncluttering goals?