Learning from failure: a Bullet Journal experiment update

After starting my Bullet Journal experiment, I wrote down my worries concerning maintaining the experiment. One worry was boredom, one was letting things slide because success would lead to overconfidence, and the third concern was getting distracted. Specifically I said:

Good habits aren’t easy to form, but so simple to break. Think about a gym-commitment. How many times do you start some exercise program only to stop because for two days in a row, you are too busy to go to the gym? This happens to me all the time at work. My best intentions get trashed because I arrive and have to solve any number of mini (or not so mini) crises.

I promised myself that I would spend at least five minutes a day updating my various Bullet Journals, but in November, things fell apart. I managed to keep up some semblance of lists until mid-November, but after the 20th, I added one entry on the 30th and nothing since then. In my home-related journal, the abandonment happened well before that. And other than medical appointments, I haven’t added anything to my agenda in a long time.

Since things aren’t working, I need to step back and examine what went wrong and I need to go back to my root reasons for creating the Bullet Journal in the first place. Those are simple:

  • to create a record of everything I do at work so that I can plan better each year (as almost everything is repeated annually),
  • to make sure I don’t forget any task or activity due to being busy or distracted, and
  • to learn to blend work-Alex with home-Alex to create better balance.

Okay, so if those are the three objectives, what went wrong?

I got distracted by technology. Remember how I moved from iPad Pro? It allowed me to create an infinite number of journals. Bad idea! I’m a minimalist and need everything in one place.

Each day more than half of my workday was taken up with covering the tasks of an employee on sick leave. When I had time to do my own work, I ran around putting out all the mini fires that were popping up because I wasn’t keeping a watchful eye on the whole bonfire.

By separating out work and home journal, I complete negated the third objective and went back to my comfort zone which is to put my focus and energies into work.

Does that mean the Bullet Journal experiment has been a failure? Only if I let it.

The good thing about calling the project an experiment is that failure is built into the name. Most discoveries are made through systematic trial and error and each failure is considered progress towards the desired result rather than proof that the project isn’t worth pursuing.

J.K. Rowling gave a speech years ago about the power of failure (included in this great list of her successes). Failure is part of the learning process. If we let failure stop us from moving forward then the failure and any related suffering has served us for nothing. Of course, the result may be  abandoning the project. It’s madness and soul-destroying to continue something when it’s obvious that the originally desired result is not possible.

But that is not my case.

With the holiday season upon us, now more than ever, I need to refocus and go back to my original plan — one journal with all my information together. I will stay with the digital version instead of going all the way back to my physical journal (although they are so nice to touch and feel) because the digital version allows me to move pages around and insert images and with ease.

How have you used failure to refocus your projects and find new and better ways to create progress?

How best to be sick: stop worrying about being productive

Over the last few months, I’ve been dealing with the sick leave of one employee after another in my day job. It was, of course, just a matter of time before I fell ill as well.

Fortunately, I’m not bed-bound nor will I have to miss work, but I am moving more slowly, have no energy, and find it hard to concentrate. As a consequence, I’m not able to get nearly as much done as I would like, I have to postpone a bunch of holiday-related projects, and I can’t tackle anything that requires much brain power.

I could be very cranky. I could push myself and end up having to redo the same work later. Or I could take a break and let this cold pass.

Being a naturally lazy person (my main motivation in doing things efficiently), the latter option appeals most to me. However, I can’t be completely unproductive. It’s just not in me. If I can’t tick things off my various lists, I get anxious.

I used to be quite good at completely disconnecting. Over 20 years ago, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia (which actually turned out to be intolerance to certain foods), and spent nine years in constant but variable pain. There were days that I could do nothing but stare at the ceiling and hope the next day would be better. It’s when I learned to be a minimalist, both in possessions and actions. I learned the hard way how not to feel guilty about not getting anything done. I wish, however, I’d had the book Say No to Guilt!: The 21 Day Plan for Accepting Your Chronic Illness and Finding Inner Peace and Happiness by Kristi Patrice Carter.

I’m lucky in that I no longer have the chronic pain, but I do need to remember the skills I built up in that period of my life when things like colds hit me. The main trick is to let it happen.

Instead of fighting with myself and making the week even worse, I let myself be sick. I enjoy the day in bed or sprawled on the sofa with mindless TV programs, instead of whining about every moment that I wasn’t sticking to my schedule.

At work, I also treat myself with care. No projects, no meetings, nothing that requires either deep thought or delicate communication skills. I stick to strictly administrative tasks that can be done even while my head floats about in a medication-induced haze.

In the end, even though I don’t complete a lot of tasks, I still accomplish the minimum, and a pamper myself enough to get back to full strength quickly. It is much better to allow the house to become a disaster for a few days, or for work tasks to pile up, so that I don’t experience any sort of setback. By scheduling in plenty of relaxation time I give myself wiggle room to catch up after feeling better. If you don’t give yourself that sort of space, then when you do fall behind, you just keep moving backwards struggling every moment.

So be kind to yourself and stop struggling – plan your time well and give yourself the best chance to achieve success, creatively.

And if you don’t get it all done, don’t worry!

Craft storage without the visual clutter

When I was organizing full-time, I regularly worked with craftspeople. Scrapbooking, textile arts, or traditional visual arts are three fields that use many bits and bobs. And all too often, the creative mind veers towards chaos, meaning an artist’s studio or scrapbookers craft room becomes a pile of pieces of projects and remainders of previous projects that can deter the artist or crafter from moving forward.

Quite often, North American houses have basements or a space over the garage for a studio or craft room, sometimes up to hundreds of square feet to spread out in and organize materials in a meaningful and logical way. But what if you don’t have all that extra space? Or what if you’re like me and you don’t want everything visible creating visual clutter?

Folding furniture might be a solution for you. As long as you have floor space to unfold and use the piece of furniture, and as long as you take the time to tidy up and fold the cabinet or desk back away again, it could be a great way to have your artist studio or craft room in the middle of your regular living space and not have to worry about visual or physical clutter.

Recently I came across what is probably a crafter’s dream storage solution: The Original Scrapbox WorkBox 3.0. When folded up, it uses less than 3 sq ft of floor space, but when opened up, it offers 9 linear feet of shelves, cubbyholes and hanging storage along with a decent sized work space.

When I first saw the video, my heart leapt in my throat and I actually said out loud “I want that!” After posting something to that effect on my Facebook wall, however, one artist friend said it looked wonderful, but with so many storage options, he knew it would devolve into chaos in five minutes. And he’s right. I’m an organized person because I’m a minimalist, and too many options create clutter for me.

If you are a detail-loving person The Original Scrapbox furniture might be a good option for you, but for the rest of us, there are less overwhelming options that can still have the same result: organized craft space with no visual clutter.

Here are just a few of them. If you have a personal favorite that isn’t on the list, tell us about it in the comments.

Unclutterer’s 2017 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Experience gifts

Today begins our annual Holiday Gift Giving Guide. Between now and November 27, we will share numerous articles on uncluttered giving that can be used this season. Most of these ideas also will apply to gift giving throughout the year, irrespective of the occasion.

Every year, experience gifts are some of our most popular suggestions as they don’t take up space, give the gift-recipient something he or she likely would never do for themselves, and can often be accompanied by something like a book or a post-experience photo album to keep the gift in mind forever.

There are some things to consider, however, before giving an experience gift.

Will your gift be used?

Our friends and family know that we love to travel and love to dine out, so we have often received experience gifts for nights in a hotel, or a romantic dinner out. Several times, however, the gift certificate has almost expired for two reasons:

  • A hotel means leaving the city, which requires organizing a weekend (or a weekday as some gift packs don’t accept weekend reservations – it’s a good idea to check).
  • Leaving the city means spending more money in travel costs and unless the destination is a “wow!” for the gift-receiver, that money spent may feel like an obligation.

Are the choices interesting?

Before you give an experience gift, check out the options of where it can be redeemed. A night in a hotel might sound good, but what if the practical options only include hotels that no one would actually want stay at?

If your experience gift is a membership to a museum or cultural venue, really consider how likely that membership is going to be used. I love museums, but not so much that I would visit the local one more than once or twice a year.

Is the experience something the recipient would actually do?

On another note, the experience gift should be something that the recipient would actually follow through on. Be careful with people who talk a lot. For example, I’ve always been curious about a tranquility tank session, but honestly, I doubt I will ever follow through on that.

Taking all of the above into consideration, here are some ideas that might just be the perfect uncluttered gift for those you love.

A day at the spa: a massage or beauty treatment is something that few people buy for themselves, but almost everyone loves.

A night out: most dinner and a movie (plus an offer of babysitting if the gift-receiver has children).

Adventure gifts: if you choose something like a hot air balloon ride or a skydiving trip, don’t forget to make sure that no one suffers from vertigo.

A course: an amateur chef might love a cooking course, someone who loves hugs might appreciate a massage course, or someone who loves taking pictures might get a lot out of a photography course. Again, however, make sure that the person enjoys taking courses, or it may be a gift that never gets redeemed.

Travel gifts: many of this type of experience gifts require getting to and from the location, but if the person is a dedicated traveller, it might be the perfect complement to an already planned trip.

Feel welcome to explore our previous Gift Giving Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

The minimalist teacher: improve learning while reducing paper

In a recent interview with teachers about organizing the school year, one of the key organizing challenges was that teachers hold onto too much. It’s a challenge for anyone who works with paper, not just teachers, However, teachers have a harder time, as they are provided with so many paper-based resources for the classroom.

Today’s article is perhaps a bit more academic (pardon the pun!) than is usual here on Unclutterer, but if anyone who imparts knowledge (from teachers to coaches, from health professionals to parents) really wants to help others learn and understand, we need to strip away all the books, papers, and government-mandated programs and focus on the learning itself.

In the English language teaching world, more than a decade ago, teachers took up the challenge of being minimalist, of removing the temptation of focusing on the materials, paring down the classroom to the basics, to developing understanding, and to letting the students guide the content.

This teaching movement, called DOGME (based on the stripped-down filmmaking movement from the 1990s) focuses on ten basic principles.

  1. Interactivity: learning happens from conversation, not one-directional speeches
  2. Engagement: people learn better when they are interested in the topics
  3. Dialogic processes: as Plato told us centuries ago, dialogue helps create understanding
  4. Scaffolded conversations: to go from ignorance to knowledge, building blocks are needed to give people confidence
  5. Emergence: understanding develops from within; it’s not transferred
  6. Components: teachers help learners discover meaning on their own through guiding them through the components of a concept
  7. Voice: students need to feel comfortable and safe communicating
  8. Empowerment: knowledge arises from the ability to express oneself, not necessarily from the ability to read or view materials
  9. Relevance: print or audiovisual materials are only offered as support, not as the centerpiece of learning
  10. Critical use: knowledge is cultural and true learning requires an awareness of our biases (personal, cultural, etc…)

As a minimalist, I love these concepts, not just for teaching, but for all areas of life. In short, learning and understanding come from conversation with others, from an awareness of self and of context, and most importantly from extrapolating personal experiences to new understanding.

I would like to issue a challenge to anyone involved in teaching, not just teachers, but anyone who transfers knowledge:

  • How can you adapt your teaching so that the focus is on the learners and on helping those learners discover for themselves a deeper understanding of the topic you’re teaching?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s a wannabe apartment gardener to do then?

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

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

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

Clutter-free patio furniture ideas

My house has a front porch that runs the full length of the front of the house. The view from inside the house is terrific and uncluttered when there isn’t any patio furniture clogging up the porch. However, there are times when I entertain when having furniture out there would be nice.

Faced with this problem of only sort-of wanting patio furniture, I eventually decided to buy two types of furniture for my porch. The first is what I call indoor-outdoor furniture: pieces that I can use inside my house 99 percent of the time, but that I can take outside without fear of damage from the elements. The second type is what I call temporary furniture: pieces that are inflatable, totally kitsch, and easy to store.

The dual-purpose seating I purchased (which is very easy to clean) helps me both inside with much needed seating and outside during social gatherings. The inflatable furniture easily stores flat when not in use on a utility closet shelf, and also has the bonus of being a great conversation starter.

When looking for outdoor furniture, consider keeping your yard or porch typically clutter free by only using outdoor-indoor furniture and temporary, inflatable pieces.

 

This post was originally published in June 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple Living and Labor-Saving Devices

In the comments section of our our post on dishwasher-safe products, there was an interesting debate on the merits of hand washing dishes. Some readers were surprised by the amount of thought and effort we seem to expend trying to avoid hand washing cookware.

I am an advocate of technology in the service of simple living. There is physical clutter in our lives, and there is time clutter. Often, judicious use of technology can help us tame the latter.

The Shakers, known for their focus on simplicity in all aspects of life, believed labor was sacred. To that end, they developed numerous labor-saving devices:

  • metal pen nibs
  • the flat broom
  • a prototype washing machine
  • the circular saw
  • waterproof and wrinkle-free cloth
  • a metal chimney cap that blocked rain

In fact, the Canterbury community in New Hampshire owned one of the first cars in the state. They also embraced the use of electricity long before their non-Shaker neighbors.

Good technology has the capacity to simplify our lives and empower us. It reduces time clutter. The arrivals of the washing machine and the electric iron were landmark events in the history of women’s liberation. By reducing the amount of time women spent on chores, they increased the amount of time women could spend on other activities.

By contrast, it’s easy to see that bad technology just gets in the way. We are seduced by the false promises of a food dehydrator. In the end, we are not only parted from our money, but we are left with a colony of unused unitaskers multiplying in the recesses of our kitchen cabinets. From the very beginning, you didn’t have a chance  — by the time you bought the seemingly innocuous wannabe waffle-maker, the war was already lost.

Simple living is about clearing away the obstacles in our lives, including the unwanted tasks. We can only do this if we are honest with ourselves about whether that labor-saving device really justifies the space it consumes.

 

This post was originally published in May 2007.

Renting vs Owning a Home: The Eternal Debate

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

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

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

That sounded good to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sock Purge: Getting rid of mismatched socks

Hate matching up sock pairs while folding laundry? One way to save you time is to have all socks of the exact same color and style.

Every so often (when most of your socks are worn out), throw away all of your white sports socks and replace them with six pairs of new, identical white sports socks. Be sure to alternate the style or brand between purges so if an old sock accidentally doesn’t get purged, you can identify it when it tries to sneak back in to your drawer. All of your socks will have the same amount of wear, they all will match, and it will save you time during folding.

If you’re a man who works in an office, do the same with black and brown dress socks. Three styles are faster to sort than 18 pairs of different styles.

For your children with similar sized feet, you could buy a dozen pairs of the same sock and split them between the kids. Alternatively, you could buy each child a different brand/style/color of sock. For example, your daughter could have white socks, and your son could have white and grey socks.

Our family has subscribed to this process for many years and we love the simplicity it brings to our laundry days.

 

This post was originally published in May 2007.

The minimalist kitchen

The New York Times ran an interesting feature in which food columnist Mark Bittman explained how one could outfit a functional, well-equipped kitchen for less than $300. Even though this article was published in 2007, it is still relevant and helpful.

If you’ll be moving out on your own, you could turn this into a shopping list or a source for ideas for your wedding gift registry. If your kitchen counters and cupboards are overflowing, you might consider using this article as a reality check for the things you already own. If you have all kinds of kitchen accessories you don’t use, and they’re not on this list, you might want to consider getting rid of them.

Particularly interesting is a section at the end of the article where Bittman lists several “inessentials”:

STAND MIXER Unless you’re a baking fanatic, it takes up too much room to justify it. A good whisk or a crummy handheld mixer will do fine.

BONING/FILLETING KNIVES Really? You’re a butcher now? Or a fishmonger? If so, go ahead, by all means. But I haven’t used my boning knife in years. (It’s pretty, though.)

WOK Counterproductive without a good wok station equipped with a high-B.T.U. burner. (There’s a nice setup at Bowery Restaurant Supply for $1,400 if you have the cash and the space.)

However, if an item on this “inessential” list is one that you use regularly (be honest here), or saves you time and effort, by all means keep it.

 

This post was originally published in May 2007.