Kick the procrastination habit

A November article in Scientific American magazine explored the topic of procrastination in its controversial article “Procrastinating Again? How to Kick the Habit.” The article concludes, as the subtitle of the article aptly states, “although biology is partly to blame for foot-dragging, anyone can learn to quit.”

The most promising advice it gives to getting past the procrastination habit is to plan time-specific actions into your schedule:

Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer of New York University and the University of Konstanz in Germany advises creating “implementation intentions,” which specify where and when you will perform a specific behavior. So rather than setting a vague goal such as “I will get healthy,” set one with its implementation, including timing, built in—say, “I will go to the health club at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow.”

Setting such specific prescriptions does appear to inhibit the tendency to procrastinate. In 2008 psychologist Shane Owens and his colleagues at Hofstra University demonstrated that procrastinators who formed implementation intentions were nearly eight times as likely to follow through on a commitment than were those who did not create them. “You have to make a specific commitment to a time and place at which to act beforehand,” Owens says. “That will make you more likely to follow through.”

The article also includes some startling information about the percentage of adults who regularly put off tasks:

Almost everyone occasionally procrastinates, which University of Calgary economist Piers Steel defines as voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay. But like Raymond [an attorney who is a self-proclaimed procrastinator], a worrisome 15 to 20 percent of adults, the “mañana procrastinators,” routinely put off activities that would be better accomplished ASAP. And according to a 2007 meta-analysis by Steel, procrastination plagues a whopping 80 to 95 percent of college students, whose packed academic schedules and frat-party-style distractions put them at particular risk.

What strategies do you invoke to keep from procrastinating? Share your tips in the comments.

 

This article has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

Productivity and organizing insights found in Lean systems

In October 2008, The Wall Street Journal ran the article “Neatness Counts at Kyocera and at Others in the 5S Club.” The article explores a typical day for Kyocera employee Jay Scovie, whose job it is to patrol offices to make sure they are sorted, straightened, shined, standardized and sustained masterpieces of uncluttered glory:

Kyocera’s version of 5S, which it calls “Perfect 5S,” not only calls for organization in the workplace, but aesthetic uniformity. Sweaters can’t hang on the backs of chairs, personal items can’t be stowed beneath desks and the only decorations allowed on cabinets are official company plaques or certificates.

One thing that bugs me about the article is that it doesn’t explain that the rigid aesthetic standards Kyocera implements are not part of the 5S system. Rules prohibiting a sweater on the back of a chair are unique to Kyocera’s “Perfect” 5S processes and not the standard 5S efficiency program.

As an unclutterer and a fan of productivity improving methods, I’m always disheartened when I see extreme examples of efficiency improvement systems discussed as if they are the norm instead of the exception. Programs that strive to increase productivity in the workplace are usually worthwhile systems that increase morale and creative thinking, instead of stifle it. This 2014 article in Harvard Business Review indicates that employees perform better when they can control their space.

If you work for a company with more than 150 employees, you probably are already familiar with at least one Lean system (“Lean” is the buzzword in the business world to mean a program that trims the fat — unnecessary and wasteful processes, methods, systems, etc.). If you’re unfamiliar with Lean systems on the whole, or are only familiar with one specific program, you might be interested in learning more about them. Even if you don’t implement the full systems, simply knowing about their methods can help to improve the way you do your work. I have definitely gained many helpful tips and tricks studying their processes.

There are numerous Lean systems, and each has a different area of expertise. Some can be used together, some are branches of pre-existing systems, while others are stand-alone programs. Different programs fall in and out of fashion, and these are a number of the current heavy hitters and resources that decently explain them:

What are your thoughts on Lean systems? Do you find that they contain useful productivity and organizing insights?

 

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

Book review: The Power of Less

Editor’s note: Although this post was originally published in 2009, we felt that information in The Power of Less is still relevant today.

Leo Babauta, who writes the inspiring blog ZenHabits, took his productivity and efficiency advice to the printed page in his book The Power of Less. Published in 2009, it is a 170-page guide to shedding the non-essential elements from your life and work so that you can do and achieve more.

His advice is based on six principles, two of which are initially discussed on pages 5 and 6 of his book:

Principle 1: By setting limitations, we must choose the essential. So in everything you do, learn to set limitations.

Principle 2: By choosing the essential, we create great impact with minimal resources. Always choose the essential to maximize your time and energy.

He uses the analogy of the haiku to illustrate these principles:

The haiku, as you may know, is usually a nature-related poem of just seventeen syllables, written in three lines (five syllables, then seven, then five). A poet writing a haiku must work with those limitations, must express an entire idea or image in only that number of syllables … He can quickly whip out seventeen syllables and have a completed haiku in a short amount of time; or he can carefully choose only the essential words and images needed to convey his idea. And this second choice is what creates some of the most powerful poetry in such a limited form — choosing only the essential.

He has four other principles, but these first two are really the heart of his system. In my opinion, he accurately explains that if you are going to be productive and efficient in all that you do, you have to make choices. You cannot do everything that comes your way, and you have to make difficult decisions about what filters into your life and what doesn’t.

On page 23 he aptly summarizes why you would want to adopt his system:

Simplifying isn’t meant to leave your life empty — it’s meant to leave space in your life for what you really want to do.

I completely agree with his message, and I think it will resonate well with most Unclutterer readers. If you are looking for sound advice on how to improve your productivity, The Power of Less will help you to be more efficient in all your dealings.

You can also check out Leo’s guest post on Unclutterer “Creating a minimalist workspace.”

 

Uncluttering your schedule to keep clear of unnecessary stress

Being human can be difficult some days. I most often notice the difficulties when I’m stressed, full of anxiety, things are chaotic, and/or under pressure. Little problems that are usually dealt with easily turn into big issues because my abilities to see the whole picture or keep my cool are gone.

One time, I completely unhinged in front of one of my colleagues. I was quietly working at my desk one minute, and the next minute I threw a tantrum because a project we were working on took a turn I didn’t expect. Instead of reacting like a normal person, I chose the path of awful person. I used my “outside voice” for at least a full minute before I realized I was being a complete idiot. Thankfully, my colleague burst into laughter (instead of yelling back or quitting) and asked if my outburst helped me feel better.

It took me two hours to calm down and figure out what had happened. Many elements in my life were to blame:

Stress + Anxiety + Disappointment + Poor Planning = Awful Erin.

As full disclosure, one of these elements was completely out of my hands. I had no way to control the event that happened that triggered my disappointment. No matter what the day or how prepared I possibly could have been, I still would have been disappointed.

The other elements were all my fault, however. My poor planning resulted in stresses and anxieties that were wholly unnecessary, and which made me blow the incident with my co-worker completely out of proportion. If I had planned appropriately, I would have been able to move with the ebbs and flows of the day and not let the stress and anxiety overwhelm me. More precisely, I wouldn’t have been experiencing stress and anxiety — at least not at the level I was.

Later that afternoon, I made a heartfelt apology to my colleague, we had a good laugh, and then I went home to re-evaluate my schedule. I needed to be realistic about my abilities.

I revisited my initial estimations and doubled them. What I thought would take one hour, I doubled to two. What I thought would take a day, I scheduled to two days. I made phone calls and adjusted others’ expectations of my timeline accordingly.

With all things in life, the more stress and anxiety you feel, the less able you are to think and respond to the best of your abilities. Proper planning — being honest with yourself about how long it will take to complete action items, setting a schedule, and having the diligence to keep to that schedule — will keep you from feeling overwhelmed and in control of the things you can control.

After my tantrum and retooling of my schedule, I noticed a significant decrease in my stress and anxiety levels. I am not super human, and my new schedule was realistic and maintainable. Unfortunately, it took making a fool out of myself to realize I needed a change. How do you organize your time to keep stress and anxiety at bay, and how do you avoid potential stress meltdowns?

 

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

Are the paths to your goals paved or cluttered?

Once upon a time, I conducted a one-question internet survey about what blocks people’s success in reaching their goals. The question I asked is: What is the single, biggest obstacle to achieving your goals? The responses were 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 has reported that “getting organized” is one of the most popular New Year’s Resolutions year after year.

If getting organized makes it to your list of resolutions in the upcoming year, it could have a positive ripple effect. 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 often forget things. How can you remember a priority project when it’s buried beneath a pile of paper as high as your office chair?

For me, an organized workspace (and house for that matter) allows me clarity of thought 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 am more productive, 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 lose 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 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 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?

 

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

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.

Folder Marker

One of the things I love about working with Mac is that I can use colour-coded tags to identify specific folders and files. For example, I have various income streams and I prefer to keep all documents related to each income stream together in their own folder. However, I use a grey tag to identify all of the receipts and documents I need to complete my income taxes. When it’s time to gather all of those items, I simply search for all of the files with the grey tag and upload them to my accountant’s secure server.

I like colour-coding. It helps keeps me organized. This is why I find it frustrating to work on a Windows computer because I do not have the ability to colour-code or tag files and folders.

However, a software program called Folder Marker was recently brought to my attention. It easily integrates into Windows Explorer allowing users to right-click on any folder to change its colour. Folder Marker also allows users to mark files (and folders) by priority (high, normal, low), by degree of work complete (done, half-done, planned), by work status (approved, rejected, pending). You can also integrate your own icons to assign to folders and files.

Folder Marker has a free version that is likely all basic computer users would ever need. Families and home business users could upgrade to the Home Version which provides more options. for would need. Small businesses sharing a common hard drive or server should upgrade to the Pro Version to have access to all the options. Compare the options here.

Would you benefit from colour-coding your digital files folders? Do you do it now? Are there any pros and cons you would like to share with other readers? Chime in with a comment below.

Pump up the volume

Are you someone who can sit in the middle of your living room with the television on, kids running in and out of the room, and still concentrate fully on the book you’re reading? Are you unlike most people and actually find it difficult to focus when it’s completely silent?

If so, you may be one of the few who will be more successful with your organization efforts if you work with noise.

Borrow a white noise machine from a friend or run an old, clanging fan while organizing. There are also apps for your phone that will generate brown, pink, white, blue, and violet noise. Consider playing music with a quick beat, somewhere around 120 to 140 beats-per-minute, while you work.

If you have a stack of papers that need to be organized, toss them in a box with pad of sticky notes and head to your local coffee shop. The sounds of the customers, cash register, and milk steamer will provide background noise to keep you on track. If you don’t feel like going out, visit Coffitivity, a website that reproduces sounds from various types of coffee shops. They also have an offline version you can install on your phone.

Now, if you’re someone who has to have complete silence when you focus, please read the above advice as a list of things not to do. As long as you know your strengths, you can use them to your advantage while organizing.

 

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

Reader question: the organized shift worker

In a comment to my post about working hard, not a lot, Kenneth in Virginia asked what the information in the post meant for someone who like his father drove a truck for a living. It’s an excellent question, because to be honest, few of us have the luxury of choosing how much we work. Most jobs have a fixed schedule, and require a physical presence during that period.

There’s no working better or faster to reduce the workload and no putting in extra hours to advance. A truck driver has to go from Point A to Point B, a cashier has to ring up purchases, and a factory worker has to run the machine for the entire eight hour shift.

This is completely different from someone who works in an office and has projects to fulfill or objectives to achieve. The previous post was addressed to these latter people, and in looking around at the literature, most business organizing books focus almost exclusively on them as well.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the former group can’t be organized or reduce their workload through efficiencies.

My husband is a factory worker, and one of the most organized people I know. Over the years, I’ve seen him develop a sort of set of rules that help him in whatever position he has.

  • Pay attention. Repetitive jobs can become mind-numbing, and if you’re not careful mistakes can start slipping in if you do not focus on each detail. You might choose the wrong lot of a product to add to a mixture. Or you might let quality slip, which may cause a serious problem for the company, with perhaps long-term negative consequences for you.
  • Don’t make more work for others. In many time-based jobs, workers operate in a sort of vacuum. They may be part of a team, but only are aware of their own part of the process. Take for example someone who works in a supermarket in the meat section. Part of her job may be to add the labels to packages of meat for sale. If the label isn’t applied flat, the scanner at the checkout won’t read it and the cashier has to either enter the barcode in manually or call someone to come give him the correct code.
  • Take your time, but not too much. The proverb haste not waste applies here. The best way to be organized and to make the time pass quickly in any job is to work consistently and carefully. No matter the pressure from above to work faster and produce more, sure and steady wins the race (to use another famous proverb). Speed produces errors which often means having to go back and doing it again. Or in the case of a truck driver, speed literally can kill you. On the other end of the spectrum, however, working more slowly than necessary relates back to the previous point: the less you work, the more someone else will have to.

Now it’s your turn. Do you have any other “rules” to add to these three for shift-based work? If you work by hours, what tricks and tips can you offer others to make sure you are working efficiently and effectively?

Are you a rebel, too?

Quite often Gretchen Rubin’s interviews inspire to me to write posts here. These posts have got me thinking about Rubin’s Four Tendencies, specifically the tendencies that resist expectations. Taking Rubin’s quiz, it turns out that I’m a Rebel, which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. My inner teenager maintains a firm hold on my ability to get things done which means I will do something for two reasons only:

  • Because I decide it’s a good idea
  • Because I want to avoid getting into trouble

Before doing the quiz, I thought that perhaps I would end up being an Obliger, fulfilling others’ expectations but not my own, however it turns out that any obliging tendencies I may harbor have more to do with wanting to avoid a scolding than wanting to please people. This avoidance of negative reactions doesn’t just emerge when it comes to external expectations; I act the same way about my own inner expectations, getting things done to evade an internal scolding.

Knowing this, I have to ask myself what having an inner teenager at the helm means for being productive and organized?

Well, for one, to get myself moving, I have to see a benefit. A teenager doesn’t get out of bed unless there’s internal passion, or at least a decent reward of some kind for completing the task.

A rebellious teenager’s favorite question is “why?” and teenagers also tend to reject history, thinking that they can invent and discover new ways of doing things that their elders (being old and slow) have never thought of.

At work, I’ve always been able to channel this rebellious attitude into productive outcomes, looking for new and more effective ways to do things, rejecting “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” out of hand, only accepting traditional ways if they prove to be the most effective.

In my personal life, however, I don’t look for new and productive ways of doing things. Instead my conflict-avoiding teenage attitude tends to rule over me and it can get me into trouble. I don’t communicate enough with my partner, either doing what I want without any sort of consultation or turning into a people-pleaser because I feel that doing anything else will end up in confrontation. Of course, what the teenager is not capable of understanding is that this avoidance strategy only creates more conflict in the end.

Staying productive, motivated and organized, therefore, requires and understanding of the following:

  • I can’t force myself into any action or I will do the opposite.
  • I need to know the benefits of any course of action.
  • I need to remember that conflict avoidance just creates more conflict.
  • The more I streamline processes, the more likely I will do them.

Have you taken Rubin’s Tendencies Quiz? Do you know yourself well enough to work with, rather against yourself?

Work hard, not a lot

Gretchen Rubin interviews the most fascinating people over on The Happiness Project blog. Recently, she spoke with Morten Hansen, co-author of Great by Choice and sole author of Great at Work. In the latter book, he reveals something that I have championed for years: working more does not mean achieving more. This is something that I’ve known intuitively and have seen in clients and in myself over and over again: it’s all about how you work, not how long you work.

Hansen has taken this intuitive sensation of mine and proven it with a study. People who work too many hours a week are actually less productive than those who work less.

He doesn’t, however, go so far at Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Work Week. Hansen states that to achieve higher than average productivity, it’s important to work hard and work a bit more than the average, but not to work so much as to damage other areas of your life.

I learned how to focus on quality not quantity back in high school when I played in the school band. I knew I wasn’t ever going to be a full-time musician (because I was a decent technical player, but couldn’t improvise to save my life). There were times when I practiced an hour or more a day and others when I practiced only a few times a week. I discovered that it didn’t matter which of the two levels I practiced at; I remained at the same level, so of course, I stopped wasting my time and made the conscious decision to practice only a few times a week.

For me, it’s a kind of intangible minimalism. Just as a minimalist mindset looks at the home and asks, “What is the least amount of stuff I can have while still maintaining the quality of life I want?” a minimalist attitude to work asks, “What are the least number of hours that I can work to reach my top productivity?”

It sounds like an easy question, but the answer is hard to calculate. Often you don’t have a choice. You’re contracted to work a specific number of hours and have to do that no matter how productive you are in that time period. Or the culture of your company is one where unpaid overtime is a sign of real commitment regardless of productivity levels (hopefully none of you works in that situation!).

According to Hansen, the most productive people put in about 25% time more than the average (50 hours of work instead of the traditional 35), but if someone starts putting in more time, the productivity drops off steeply.

My question for everyone, therefore is: How much do you want to achieve your objectives? Are you willing to invest that 25% more time into them than the average person? Can you even quantify that that average time investment is for your objectives? If not, perhaps you might consider making that calculation your top priority.

The pleasure of small tasks fulfilled regularly

Carrying on with the idea of routines, I recently saw a quote on Gretchen Rubin’s site that talks about the pleasure of a single task repeated.

Even one task fulfilled at regular intervals in a man’s life can bring order into his life as a whole; everything else hinges upon it. By keeping a record of my experiences I live my life twice over. The past returns to me. The future is always with me.

The Journal of Eugene Delacroix

It reminds me of a surprising but small shift in attitude in my life almost a decade ago. Almost all my life I had the privilege of living with a dishwasher, but at that point in my life, we lived in a tiny apartment with no counter space and no dishwasher. Having to wash dishes by hand made me groan every time I looked at the ever-growing pile of dirty plates, glasses, and cutlery.

At the time, I had just begun my journey to being more consistent in the pursuit of my goals. I had decided that to help me make that happen, I would be more consistent with small tasks around the house and doing the dishes daily became one of those routines I started.

Instead of seeing the washing up as an onerous, boring task, I turned it into a moment to meditate, to breathe, and to disconnect from the stresses and worries of the day. And it worked! I went from hating the chore, to feeling empty if I didn’t do it. Through one small change, I added a sense of calm and order to what was normally a chaotic day.

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten out of the habit, but recently have picked it up again. There’s nothing quite so satisfying than sitting down to write with the counter empty and clean, the bed made and the floor swept. This has nothing to do with the idea of external clutter equals mental clutter or that cleanliness is next to godliness. It has totally to do with a sense of fulfillment that the quote describes.

As chaos theory has demonstrated, the micro is the macro and vice versa. Coastlines are made up of the same shapes when looking from space down to looking at the almost microscopic level. Plus, Dirk Gently tells us that everything is connected, so being consistent with small tasks that have no emotional weight to them helps maintain consistency with more emotionally charged goals like writing and publishing a novel.

In what ways do you use small chores and tasks regularly fulfilled to create order and consistency in your life?