Book Review: The Real Simple Method to Organizing Every Room: And How To Keep It That Way

At first glance, The Real Simple Method to Organizing Every Room is like many other organizing books. It has information about uncluttering and some nice glossy pictures.

BUT…

This book is much more than that. It provides great advice on how to pare down your possessions and create not only a functional home, but a stylish one too. My favourite quote is:

A streamlined home is like a symphony with pieces that work together. Instead of assigning items specific roles and hoarding junk in a drawer, imagine that your home is a boutique where everything works together.

The uncluttering and organizing instruction they give is relatively standard — group your items together, decide what stays, and eliminate what you no longer want or need. They furnish a great list of options on where to donate most items. I like their suggestion of labelling bags of raggedy clothes as “unsuitable for resale” so charities can sell them directly to textile recycling without wasting time sorting through them.

The Real Simple Method suggests that readers practice small, simple habits that make a big difference in the look and functionality of the home. This way they only spend a few minutes each day doing housework rather than spending most of the weekend moving things from one pile to another. There is plenty of useful advice on how to get family members involved in a positive and productive way (no bribery or coercion involved!).

Throughout the book there are beautiful, glossy, eye-pleasing photos — and they are realistic. The closets and drawers are full of clothes. The rooms have a typical amount of normal-sized furniture and there are colours! So many home décor magazines I have seen use scaled-down furniture, have only a few items of clothing in each closet or drawer, and the colours range from white to beige. The Real Simple Method is a nice change!

In the book, each room is assigned its own chapter. Within each chapter there are suggestions about how to make the room functional. For example, the experts suggest that the most efficient way to organize is to make sure the room is arranged to allow you to move through it freely without crisscrossing. This will help you perform tasks in an orderly manner.

Each chapter contains a list of the tools (furniture, stylish storage items, etc.) for the suggested look and functionality of the room. There is also a section within each chapter that gives alternatives for small spaces — great for those who live in apartments and small homes. The experts also include a checklist for tidying if you have five minutes, 15 minutes, one hour, or a whole weekend and provide time-saving tricks on to how to keep the room organized and clean with minimal effort.

For each room, they take one clutter problem area that most readers have difficulty with such as the junk drawer (kitchen), handbag (bedroom), or shelving (living room), and do an in-depth exposé into how to conquer the chaos and create a functional stylish space once and for all. There is a guide for hanging wall art, a list of ways to set your table incorporating colour and style elements, and suggestions on how to store your fine dinnerware and stemware dust-free so you can be ready to entertain in minutes.

From indoor spaces to outdoor spaces, from kid spaces to pet spaces, this book covers it all. If you are looking for a book that not only provides useful organizing advice but helps you create and highlight your own style, all while doing less housework, check out The Real Simple Method to Organizing Every Room.

Reader question: Letting go of books

Reader Heather wrote in to ask advice about letting go of some of her books.

I read a lot (up to four books a day) and I have a number of books that I read over and over from select authors. I also have an advanced degree and am going back to school soon. I have novels, books about writing, poetry, birds, science, and art. I never know when I’ll be up all night or stuck at home for several days. I have been reading through Gutenberg.org, but that limits me to books for which the copyright has expired.

I have three regular sized bookshelves and one double sized bookshelf. I know I need to get rid of at least one bookshelf, or all the books on the floor in stacks, or both. My one-bedroom apartment is cluttered with books, birds, plants, and art supplies. It depresses me and it’s hard to take care of. I’m pecking away but often my chronic health problems interfere so it’s hard. Can you offer any suggestions?

Thanks for the great question Heather. Many bibliophiles have difficulty getting rid of books — myself included. I grow so attached to some novels that getting rid of them would be like throwing away my best friends. However, there is only so much space we have to store books that tough decisions (and yes indeed, they are tough) must be made.

Unclutterer has a great article about what books to let go. These include books you won’t ever read, books you won’t read again, and books you don’t like. Below, I’ve included a few more unconventional ways of uncluttering. Perhaps you will find one or more helpful.

Evacuate your home. Pretend you have been ordered to evacuate. You can take only the books you can fit into three smaller moving boxes and you only have 30 minutes to choose your favourites. Set a timer with an alarm and start boxing up your favourite books. When you are done, the books in the boxes are those you will definitely keep and everything else is negotiable. This tactic makes you react on instinct and not overthink your decisions. It doesn’t work for everyone, but if you might want to give it a go and see what you discover. It is a similar process to asking yourself if the book sparks joy.” However, with many book lovers (myself included), every book sparks joy so giving yourself this evacuation challenge might help.

Worst-case scenario. Ask yourself what would be the worst possible thing that could happen if you got rid of the book. Would you lose important information that would be difficult to find elsewhere? Would part of your family heritage be lost? If so, then the book is a keeper. Everything else that you could find in a library or on the internet, is negotiable. If the book is essential for working on a current, active project, then the book is a keeper. Convenience is important too. Once the project is complete though, the book becomes eligible for elimination.

Book Custodian. Are you looking after the books as if you were a librarian? Do you practice proper book storage and cleaning techniques? Are you able to keep up with repairs any books might need? Are your books organized in a way that you can find exactly what you need when you need it? Consider letting go of books that you don’t feel compelled to take care of.

Gamify it. In this technique, have a friend pull a book off the shelf at random and tell you only one significant detail of the book such as the title or author’s name. You have to tell your friend all about the book. For fiction, you could provide a brief summary of the plot. For non-fiction, provide some facts within the book. If you can’t provide details, the book leaves your home. If you haven’t yet read the book, the friend puts it in a separate “to read” pile and comes back in a month or so. If you haven’t read the book by then, it goes.

Here are a few other Unclutterer articles about books that you might find helpful.

Thanks for your great question Heather. We hope that this post gives you the information you’re looking for.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject as “Ask Unclutterer.”

Book Review: The Kitchen Shortcut Bible

When I agreed to review The Kitchen Shortcut Bible, I assumed that it would be just a book full of tips and tricks to keep your kitchen uncluttered and make meal preparation easier. It is indeed that, and much more.

The Kitchen Shortcut Bible is a recipe book like many others, full of healthy, sumptuous dishes including breakfasts, appetizers, dinners, and desserts. There are lovely glossy photos of the foods just like in every other cookbook too. But, the Kitchen Shortcut Bible differs from typical recipe books because there are time and money saving shortcuts on every single page and larger sections of helpful instructions and advice before and after every chapter.

One of the things I liked about this book is that the authors promote make-ahead meals which allow readers to do some meal planning but still have the flexibility to change their plan when the need arises. One of my favourite ideas was the make-ahead chicken packets. Foil wrap boneless, skinless chicken breasts in one of the marinade recipes provided and place the packet on a baking sheet in the freezer. Once the packets are frozen, pile them up in the freezer. When you are ready to make dinner, simply pull out the frozen packet and pop it directly in the oven. If you make one or two breasts per packet, you just pull out the number you need to make dinner — super easy if you’re dining alone or if guests drop in at the last minute!

There are dozens of slow-cooker, one-skillet, and sheet-pan supper recipes that allow you to create flavourful meals with minimal clean-up. The authors advocate time-saving preparations such as buying pre-cut or frozen vegetables, dried pasta, and canned beans, and they tell readers how to work with these ingredients to obtain the best results. They also provide guidance on choosing fastest cooking fresh meats and fresh vegetables without sacrificing quality or flavour.

There are suggestions for vegetarian/vegan options including a section on Better Veggie Burgers. (I can’t wait to try these out!) In the margins of some recipes, the authors indicate which processed food used in the recipe contain not immediately obvious ingredients such as gluten, peanuts/nuts, or high amounts of salt. This is very useful for those with allergies or on special diets.

One thing that made me smile is how they turn some unitaskers such as the waffle maker, garlic press, and coffee press into multi-taskers. There are ten recipes that use a waffle maker and only one of them is actually waffles (and it is a super-quick recipe too!). The section entitled, Better Living with a Garlic Press, explains how to make great rubs and marinades by using a garlic press for ginger, cocktail onions, pickled jalapeños and more. The coffee press is given a new multi-tasker life by making flavourful teas and infusions.

To be honest with Unclutterer readers, many of the food preparation and time-saving tips are not new to me. I have a Master’s Degree in Food Chemistry and I spend quite a bit of time in the kitchen. However, I did need to be reminded of a few things and it is always good to try different recipes! The Kitchen Shortcut Bible would be an ideal gift for someone new to cooking, perhaps a young adult who has just moved out on their own or someone interested in reducing their dependency on ready-made and restaurant foods. I highly recommend The Kitchen Shortcut Bible. You will save time and money in a uncluttered kitchen and enjoy restaurant quality meals with very little work.

Book review: Faster Than Normal

Faster Than Normal: Turbocharge Your Focus, Productivity, and Success with the Secrets of the ADHD Brain by Peter Shankman is a valuable book if you have ADHD. It is packed full of useful, easy-to-implement tips and tricks on how to maximize productivity. Even if you do not have ADD/ADHD, you will find the advice is very helpful.

Mr. Shankman starts out by explaining that ADHD is like having a race car brain while everyone else is on a tricycle. He also indicates that it takes skill and practice to drive a race car; to channel, harness, and use the power. He suggests that ADHD medications are useful (and in many cases essential) but people also need to develop practical life skills to manage their ADHD. The book Faster Than Normal, does just that.

Rituals

We’ve mentioned the benefits of rituals and routines many times on Unclutterer. Rituals and routines, after being practiced, become automatic because your brain becomes comfortable with the associated feelings. Mr. Shankman advises that those with ADHD should concentrate on the “great feeling” or reward and work backwards to create the ritual. For example, if you like the way you feel and you perform your best after you’ve eaten a health breakfast, focus on that aspect when you set your alarm earlier in the morning rather than stressing about waking up earlier.

Exercise

Exercise is important for those with ADHD. Mr. Shankman is an Ironman triathlete who wakes up long before dawn to get in a training session before his day starts. His ritual won’t work for everyone. However, there are many things people can do to build in more exercise into their day such as taking the stairs and walking around the neighbourhood at lunch hour or during coffee breaks. He also advocates getting outdoors as much as possible.

Eat well

Your ADHD race car brain needs functions best with race car fuel. Foods high in nutritional value will help keep you running at peak performance levels. Mr. Shankman suggests meal planning, and not keeping junk foods in your desk or cupboards.

Sleep Well

Mr. Shankman found by experience that improving his sleep significantly improved the quality of his performance and his productivity — something that we’ve talked about on Unclutterer before. Some of his suggestions include creating rituals around bedtime, reducing screen time in the evening hours, and using a sunrise/sunset simulation light.

Simplify

For many with ADHD a chaotic environment at home or at work is detrimental. Uncluttering (the fewer squirrels you can see, the less often you’ll be distracted) and eliminating choice (the fewer shiny things to choose from, the easier it is to choose) will help you be more productive.

Reduce triggers

Mr. Shankman talks about triggers that can set off ADHD. These triggers are like potholes in the road of life. Hitting one while riding a tricycle is no big deal but when you are driving your ADHD race car brain, it may cause you to spin out. Triggers vary by person but can include things like a messy house or office, excessive noise, or proximity to bad vices such as alcohol, tobacco or gambling, etc.

It is important to determine what your triggers are because, “Understanding why you make bad decisions, and how it feels when you do, is a great step in changing your habits to avoid them in the future.”

Employ tools

Mr. Shankman is a big fan of outsourcing tasks such as hiring a personal assistant, housekeeper, professional organizer, travel agent, etc. This may not be an option for everyone and he offers several suggestions for getting the work done when you can’t afford to hire someone.

There are many time management techniques described in Faster Than Normal. These include scheduling meetings for only one day per week, planning mini-tasks for short-burst downtimes (e.g., waiting in the dentist office), and planning out projects by creating deadlines for them.

Many digital tools to help manage ADHD are suggested such as password managers, document and software backup systems, and cloud storage. Mr. Shankman also recommends apps that span a large range from to-do lists to health trackers and explains how to use them with your ADHD to maximize productivity.

Non- ADHD people

At the end of the book, there is a great chapter for those who have a close relationship with someone with ADHD. It explains how we can support our ADHD loved ones in their efforts to be effective and productive by assisting them in their weak areas and helping them recognize their strengths.

If you have read this book, please add a comment letting us know how it affected your ability to unclutter, organize and stay productive. If you have ADD/ADHD or are close to someone who does, feel free to share your tips and tricks with our readers.

How to properly store books

Last weekend I donated several books to the local collection box. Most were titles I had lost interest in, and a few were duplicates (don’t ask how I got multiple copies of one book). When I came home I researched how to properly store the books, as I want the keepers to stay in good shape. Here’s what I found.

When it comes to storing and preserving books, the two biggest enemies are humidity and pests. Moisture in the air encourages mold growth and that will damage books terribly. Additionally, don’t wrap books in plastic or store them in zipper seal plastic bags, as that also encourages mold growth.

Books do best in a controlled climate. Areas where temperate and humidity fluctuate — like an attic, basement, or garage — will lead to damaged books. Places that are too humid can encourage mold growth, while a location that is too dry can make books brittle. Direct sunlight can fade the colors on covers and dust jackets.

It is best to store books in the main living quarters of your house, where the temperate and humidity are relatively constant. Storing books upright on an open bookshelf makes them easily accessible but if books lean against each other or the sides of the bookshelf or are jam-packed on the shelves, the spines can become misaligned. Ensure you clean the books regularly. Attach a soft brush to your vacuum cleaner and set it to low suction to keep the books dust free.

If you don’t have shelf space available, acid-free, lignin-free storage boxes are a viable option. Try to use small to medium in size ones so they won’t be too heavy. Never use boxes that previously stored food, as food odors can attract pests. Pack books flat in the box with the biggest books at the bottom. If you pack books vertically, always have the spine facing downwards to avoid stress on the binding. Fill any empty spaces with acid-free, lignin-free paper to keep the books from bumping into each other and possibly causing damage. For detailed information on book storage and preservation, see the Library of Congress website.

I have this fantasy that, someday after I’m gone, my children will inherit my “library,” as humble as it is. When I was young, my grandfather converted one side of a hallway into a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that I found fascinating. When he left us a few years ago, I took a few of the books I had always admired to be my own. I like to think that someday, my children (or grandchildren) will bring my old books into their homes. I mean to keep them in good condition until then.

Book Review: Remodelista: the organized home

Remodelista: the organized home is a beautiful book. As the tagline states, the book has “simple, stylish storage ideas for all over the house.”

The book is divided into three sections. In the first section, they describe their organizing philosophy which is similar to ours at Unclutterer; eliminate what you do not use and love, designate a home for all items, look for organizing solutions with what you already own, and buy less but when you buy, aim for better quality.

The second section of the book takes readers room by room providing ideas on how to organize and store almost everything and anything. Many of the systems can be adapted for different styles of living whether that be a small apartment or a large family home. Detailed photographs of the designs show not just order and storage, but beauty and serenity. The muted neutral colour palette used throughout the book highlights utilitarianism with elegance.

There are several lists of resources in the third section of the book. There is a list of alternatives to plastic for those that wish to use to sustainable products and a guide to donating, selling, or otherwise off-loading unwanted goods. A list of favourite suppliers is also provided for those who wish to purchase the items used in the designs.

If you’re in the mood to be inspired by minimalism with style, I suggest you take a look through Remodelista: the organized home.

How to organize your books

If you have a substantial number of physical books you intend to keep, how do you organize them on your bookshelves? There’s no one best approach, but the following are some possibilities to consider:

By genre and/or author

These are the most common approaches, and they are often combined. For example, you might put all science fiction together, organized by author. It’s up to you to define genres (and sub-genres) as you wish, depending on how you classify books in your mind and how many books you have. You could also use one of the library classification systems: the Dewey Decimal Classification or the Library of Congress system.

I tend to organize by genre and I keep all books by any one author together. However, that’s as detailed as I get — I don’t organize authors or titles alphabetically. But some people find alphabetizing to be helpful, and some will add a chronological component: organizing books by each author in the order they were released, organizing history books from oldest time period to the most recent, etc.

By color

While this can create an interesting look, does it interfere with finding a specific book when you want it? Not always, since some people remember book covers and colors. You could also choose this approach for the books in just one space — it doesn’t have to be the approach taken for all your books.

By height

This is often a compromise from a genre/author approach, when some books just won’t fit with the others. Or it could be a second-tier organizing strategy, where books within a genre get organized by height.

But you might also choose to organize by height — especially for really tall or really short books — to make the best use of limited bookshelf space. This works best when you can adjust the shelves to just the right height. I have one shelf that’s a collection of super-short books.

And as with books organized by color, some people just like the look of books organized by size, and use it as their primary sort.

By read vs. unread

This would be an approach to use in combination with another one, where all the to-be-reads are kept together (and organized however you wish). All the ones you’ve read and are saving would be kept separately (and also organized however you wish).

By how much you love them

Some readers like to keep all their favorites together, and then use whatever other system they want for the rest. This especially makes sense if you tend to re-read these favorites frequently, or if you often loan them to friends. If you have a guest bedroom, you might want to put some favorites in there.

By language

If you have books in multiple languages, your first sort might be by language. Within each language you could then organize by author/genre or whatever other approach appeals to you.

By personal chronology

I’d never heard of this approach until I saw what James Reynolds wrote about how he organizes books: “by date I got them. simple that way. new books just get added to the end. in this way, you get to trace the story of yr entire reading life – in chronological order.”

Randomly

Some folks know that simply getting books off the floor and onto the shelves is as much as they’re likely to do, so they don’t set up organizational systems they know they’ll never maintain. And other people just enjoy the randomness. For example, Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, said:

What I like about that disorder is that it allows that element of surprise and serendipity. When I’m looking over my shelves, trying to figure out what I’m going to read next, I don’t know where everything is and that enables me to be surprised.

And a note about shelving techniques: There’s been some recent attention to the practice of shelving books backward, with the spines inward and pages outward. While I’ve seen many people deride this, it winds up that some neurodiverse people find this a much less stressful look. I had never considered this, and I’m thankful to C. L. McCollum for sharing that perspective.

Book review: Soulful Simplicity

Soulful Simplicity isn’t a book entirely about uncluttering and minimalism. It is a book about the author’s journey to her ideal life (of which uncluttering and minimalism play a large part).

A number of years ago, Courtney Carver was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). She recognized that her lifestyle was exacerbating her symptoms. She needed to reduce high stress levels caused by clutter, debt, overwork, and trying to meet the needs of everyone in the family.

During the first few chapters, Carver she describes her life after her MS diagnosis. She felt that MS was her wake-up call then she goes on to say, “…but had I been really paying attention I would’ve woken up sooner.” Carver explains that the way she was living was difficult but at least it was familiar. Isn’t that the case with so many of us? We cling to our old habits because they are comfortable and we resist change because it makes us feel uneasy.

By following Carver’s journey in Soulful Simplicity readers can learn how to create their own ideal lives. Carver came up with the “Simplicity Summit” — a type of family meeting to discuss, in a supportive environment, why you are simplifying your lives in the first place. Her book provides a guideline on how to hold your own Simplicity Summit. There are lists of questions to ask each other and suggested action steps to achieve your goals.

One idea I liked was Carver’s suggestion to change your lifestyle slowly by using habit stacking — establishing one habit at a time then adding a new one so that each habit triggers and supports the others. For example, if you want to increase your daily water intake, drink a glass of water before every meal. You are already consuming a meal so that habit is already established, adding another habit onto it, will help create a pattern that will stick.

Soulful Simplicity has a chapter on “The Upsides of a Downsize” where Carver discusses her reasons for uncluttering. She hits the nail on the head when she talks about organizing supplies and storage space stating, “When you need to buy things [i.e. storage bins] for your things, it’s time for fewer things.”

Carver doesn’t really delve into the organizing process itself (for example, where to donate shoes or what is the best spot for the coffee maker), but she does discuss a lot of causes and reasons for clutter accumulation. From debunking the myths of ownership to shopping away the pain to dealing with the guilt of letting go, she helps readers wade through the emotional turmoil and come out on the other side with a better idea of the life they want going forwards.

If your New Year’s resolution is to move towards a lifestyle with less stress and less stuff but more joy and more soul, I highly recommend Soulful Simplicity.

Book review: Let It Go

It’s All Too Much by Peter Walsh is one of my favorite organizing books, so I was eager to read Walsh’s newest book. I found that Let It Go: Downsizing Your Way to a Richer, Happier Life started out slow, but by the time I finished it I was glad I read this one.

Walsh deals with two types of downsizing scenarios. The first is if you are downsizing for yourself, and the second is if you need to downsize for a parent. He deals with both the purely practical aspects and the emotional aspects, including the family drama that can arise when dealing with a parent’s stuff.

Walsh identified three categories of things a downsizer owns: Memory items, I-Might-Need-It items, and trash/recycling. I really appreciated how Walsh has you identify the treasures among the various types of Memory items, since these treasures (vs. trinkets and such) are the items worth taking to a new home. Walsh wrote that each treasure “should commemorate a specific memory, event, or person.” He suggested coming up with a list of “bests, greatests, and mosts” from your life and then looking for one treasure related to each item on that list.

While I don’t currently need to downsize, I found it interesting to compare the treasures I identified using Walsh’s process with the short list of items I had identified as things I’d try to save if I ever needed to evacuate from my home. Sure enough, the art pieces I had chosen all fit — they are tied to memories of my mom, a dear friend, a wonderful trip, etc. I have other art I certainly enjoy, but I could leave it behind if I needed to downsize.

And looking at Walsh’s “treasure map” of possible “bests, greatests, and mosts” I saw “my greatest career achievement.” This inspired me to add two things to my evacuation list: a teddy bear I was given from a fantastic project team from my corporate days, and a coffee mug given to me by one of my many amazing organizing clients.

While this was my single biggest insight from the book, I found scattered gems throughout. For example, I appreciated this warning:

Gender-based shortcuts can save time, and they may work for your family. But they also present a well-worn rut that can lead your family away from the best solutions. …

During your downsizing process, avoid assuming that women will wrap the china and men will load the truck. In your family’s case, maybe the best recipient for camouflage clothes is a sister, and the best caretaker of a decorative glass bowl will be a 12-year-old grandson.

I also appreciated how much emphasis Walsh placed on not feeling guilty if you don’t want a loved one’s possessions — and how he encouraged parents to not push things onto their children that the children don’t want. His advice to parents:

If your kids don’t want your treasures, don’t try to guilt them into taking them. These things are important to you. They mark your happy memories, your identity, and your accomplishments. These may not be a meaningful way that your children would choose to remember you. Furthermore, your kids don’t have to have a reason for not wanting your things. They get to choose which items they want in their homes, just like you do.

Book review: IKEAHACKERS.NET 25 Biggest and Best Projects

201712_ikeahackers_bookI quite enjoy the website IKEAHACKERS.NET. If you’re not familiar with it, the site shows modifications on and re-purposing (“hacks”) of IKEA products. Innovative and skilled people from around the world submit their ideas, designs, and creations to IKEAHACKERS.NET. Photos and instructions are published to inspire and motivate the rest of us.

The modifications may be as simple as painting a piece or parts thereof, or adding embellishments with a glue gun. Some modifications require disassembling the furniture and using your skills with power tools. Many of the IKEA products are rebuilt to serve a new purpose.

Their new book, IKEAHACKERS.NET 25 Biggest and Best Projects presents some of the most creative and popular and contributions to their website since they started in 2006. There are gorgeous photos of the projects which makes it a lovely coffee table book but, there are also detailed instructions that appear much more detailed and easy to follow than original IKEA instructions!

This book has a bit of everything. There’s a half-wall lamp with a little shelf that would be ideal for small spaces, a window bench with storage that makes excellent use of otherwise wasted space, and a disguised laundry hamper that keeps visual clutter to a minimum.

The skill level of the projects varies. The Double Murphy Bed is a bit complicated for a new do-it-yourself-er, but the String Sided Cabinet would make a great project for a family with school-aged children.

If you’re looking for some projects to occupy your time and you’ve got some unused or underemployed IKEA furniture sitting around, grab, IKEAHACKERS.NET 25 Biggest and Best Projects get your creative energy flowing!

Book Review: Crucial Conversations

One of the most difficult tasks when it comes to organizing the home is talking about it with other family members. It’s far too easy for conversations to deteriorate into arguments and suggestions about clutter to turn into accusations and attacks. In the end, the one wanting to unclutter becomes extreme wanting to throw everything out and the one resisting begins to hold onto to every little piece of paper saying that it’s all vitally important. No one’s happy and the clutter problem isn’t just still there, it’s grown into the focus of a battle of wills that can’t be won.

Fortunately, there exists a solution, and it comes in book format. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, 2nd Edition, is a book that helps people to prepare for delicate conversations, to transform anger and hurt feelings into dialogue, and to make any situation safe enough for all parties to freely discuss any topic.

My background is Anglo-Canadian, and so I come from a culture where delicate conversations were never held. I never learned how to initiate and participate in (possibly) anger-producing discussions; we would just avoid them. So, for me, finding this book has been a lifesaver both at work and at home.

Just looking at the table of contents provides a plan for tackling delicate situations:

  • Ch 1: What is a Crucial Conversation? And Who Cares?
  • Ch 2: Mastering Crucial Conversations: The Power of Dialogue
  • Ch 3: Start with the Heart: How to Stay Focused on What Your Really Want
  • Ch 4: Learn to Look: How to Notice When Safety is at Risk
  • Ch 5: Make It Safe: How to Make It Safe to Talk About Almost Anything
  • Ch 6: Master My Stories: How to Stay in Dialogue When You’re Angry, Scared or Hurt
  • Ch 7: State my Path: How to Speak Persuasively, Not Abrasively
  • Ch 8: Explore Others’ Paths: How to Listen When Others Blow Up or Clam Up
  • Ch 9: Move to Action: How to Turn Crucial Conversations into Action and Results
  • Ch 10: Yeah, But: Advice for Tough Cases
  • Ch 11: Putting it All Together: Tools for Preparing and Learning

At the beginning of the book, there is a quiz to help you determine what challenges you face in particular when it comes to the issue, and suggests which chapters should receive your special attention.

How has this book helped me?

Well, at work, I have to evaluate staff and sometimes provide feedback that no one wants to hear about themselves. Previously, I would have softened the message so much that no one was ever sure I was critiquing them. Now, however, I have a framework to use that doesn’t attack the listener, but allows me to express my concerns about their job performance.

And at home, instead of never saying anything because I did not want to upset my partner, I can now open up and create a safe space for discussing pretty much anything.

If I had read this book back when I was organizing professionally, it would have helped my business immensely. Often organizing clients feel ashamed or attacked when anyone speaks to them about their clutter and conversations slide into defensive, emotionally-charged situations. When family members are involved, these conversations can become full-blown arguments.

In my opinion, this book should be required reading for everyone, but most definitely it needs to be read by anyone who finds that delicate conversations either don’t happen or become arguments that harm their relationships when the goal is only to help those around them.

Crucial Conversations is available in print or in e-book and has a follow-up title called Crucial Accountability (previously titled Crucial Confrontations), also available in print or e-book (I have not read this latter book yet, but if it’s anywhere as useful as the first book, it’s a must-read as well). And if you like your books bundled, the two come as an e-bundle offer, as well.

Thinking ahead about simplifying the holidays

As the days get shorter here in the Northern Hemisphere and the nights get chillier, I start thinking about the upcoming holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. And this inspired me go to my bookshelf and take another look at the book entitled Simplify Your Christmas: 100 Ways to Reduce the Stress and Recapture the Joy of the Holidays, by Elaine St. James.

This is a type of book that often doesn’t appeal to me: a smaller size (for easy grabbing at the bookstore cash register) and the 100-ways format. But this is one I liked, because it puts forth a range of suggestions so you’re quite likely to find at least a few that inspire you to approach things a bit differently. The author isn’t proposing any one-size-fits-all solution.

On a re-read, the chapter that most caught my attention was entitled Stop Trying to Get Organized. Her point is that a long organized holiday to-do list — with tasks starting weeks or months before Christmas — means you’re still doing a whole lot of things. Simplifying, so the long list isn’t so long, would often be a better approach. It reminded me of the standard organizing approach where we unclutter first and then organize what’s left, so we aren’t organizing things we don’t really want or need.

The author emphasizes the importance of identifying what’s special and meaningful to you and your family about the holidays and focusing on those items. This made me think about my own special holiday memories. I remember standing on a friend’s porch in Florida on a warm Christmas Eve, looking at the lights, drinking wine, and singing every Christmas carol we could remember. I remember being lucky enough to spend a Christmas with friends in Germany, who had invited many family members and friends to spend the holiday with them. They opened gifts on Christmas Eve, but the number of gifts and their cost were both much less than what I often see at home. I have amazing memories of a Christmas Eve spent answering calls on an AIDS hotline, many years ago. I love pulling together my Christmas music playlist every December, and buying gifts for my adopted seniors from their wish lists has been part of my holidays for years.

So music, friends, and caring for those less fortunate than me are key parts of my holidays. These all add joy to my life, don’t involve excessive spending, and don’t cause me any stress.

St. James addresses many aspects of holiday celebrations: cards, gift giving, the Christmas tree and other decorations, holiday meals, the office Christmas party, etc. Now, before we’re actually swept up in the holiday season, might be a good time to ponder how you’d like to handle all of this in the coming months. Many of her thoughts about Christmas could apply to other holidays equally well.

And now I’m going to freecycle this book, passing it along so someone else can be inspired to have the holiday celebrations they really want.