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?

Overcoming procrastination

At the end of last year, I finally did a business-related task I’d been procrastinating on for ages. It was a non-trivial project, but I’d been thinking “I really should do this” for way too long. It felt so good to finally have it completed!

And starting the first week in January I finally started using my Waterpik flosser. I had that thing sitting on my bathroom counter for three months before I read the instructions and began using it. Taking better care of myself was one of my goals for 2018, and this was a nice first step. My dental hygienist can stop bugging me about this, finally. Why did I wait so long?

But procrastination is something almost all of us fight at times. Sometimes we procrastinate for months over something that winds up taking just a few minutes. Laurie Voss tweeted about putting off a phone call for three months that took only three minutes when he finally did it. I relate to that!

I’m very good about taking care of things that are time-critical. But many things on my lists have no real urgency about them. Still, getting them done would have a positive impact on my life.

As I’ve been thinking about the simple to-dos and larger projects that seem to linger on my lists, I’ve decided I’m going to try this approach: Each week, I’ll do one thing I’ve been procrastinating about tackling. If I get inspired and do more than one, that’s great — but one is my minimum.

My lists include substantial projects (get my many boxes of old slides scanned), much smaller things (follow the instructions for fixing my shredder, which has stopped turning off automatically), and things in the middle (update a 400-line spreadsheet listing places to donate and recycle various items). Some of my to-dos are even fun, like seeing some current movies and reading books on my to-be-read shelf. (I mostly read digital books, but in some cases I enjoy having a physical copy.)

For the large projects, I won’t try to do the whole thing in one week — I’ll just take the next meaningful step. For example, the first step on dealing with my slides would be going through the first few trays of slides to decide if they are all ones I want to have scanned.

I also know that making a public declaration of intent is a good way to make sure I really overcome my procrastination. So here’s my declaration — I’ll report back later this year to let you know how things went.

Routines: Are you for or against?

Do you like having a routine? Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with them. I see the usefulness in them, and when I follow a routine I’m more productive and don’t forget things as often as when I don’t have a routine.

However, I’m a bit like my mother. She loved routines, in theory, but after three or four days of following a routine she would find herself getting dizzy, as if her brain couldn’t cope with being so ordered. While a routine doesn’t make me dizzy, I do find myself looking for excuses to get distracted.

Of course, there are different types of routines to consider. There are regular practice routines, such as exercise, writing, or meditation. And then there are daily routines such as:

  • 7:00 Get up and have breakfast
  • 8:00 Go to the pool
  • 9:00 Write an article for Unclutterer
  • 10:00 Clean one area of the house
  • 10:30 Do some quilting and watch an episode of favourite TV show
  • 11:30 Go for a coffee and do some creative writing
  • 12:30 Prep lunch and tidy the house
  • 13:30 Eat lunch
  • 14:00 Leave for work

The first type of routine works for me. It focuses my mind. It creates momentum. It’s self-motivating. The second type of routine, however, while on paper seems like a great idea, always ends up depressing me, for two reasons: there’s never enough time to get everything I want done and it feels like being in the military or in a super-strict boarding school. Life is not so orderly — it’s spontaneous and unpredictable. Trying to squeeze it into a rigid plan just creates stress when the plan can’t be completed.

That’s why I like using the Bullet Journal system. It focuses more on the idea of regular practice and there’s no pressure to do everything in a single day. By having the “permission” to move tasks forward with a simple arrow takes away the stress of having too many tasks in the to-do list.

But when it comes to deciding how you feel about routines, don’t just take my opinion. Check out the book Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, with contributions from Unclutterer’s Editor-at-Large, Erin Rooney Doland, as well as Seth Godin, Leo Babauta, Gretchin Rubin, and 17 other experts in the field.

The only way past is through it

In a recent interview with Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project, author Greer Hendricks hit the nail on the head when it comes to overcoming procrastination. When faced with a task she doesn’t feel like doing she reminds herself that “the only way past is through it.”

This adage doesn’t apply to every task we’d rather not do. In fact, there are many times that the best way to overcome procrastination is to cross the task off your list altogether, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

Instead, let’s focus on those tasks we dread but cannot avoid.

I have one of those coming up and if I want to do my day job well, there is no way to avoid it or cross it off my life. I have to face it and go through the experience no matter how unappetizing it feels.

At the beginning of February, I have a conference to go to. The sessions don’t really appeal to me and I have to leave the conference early due to other commitments at home. So, in a discussion with my boss, we decided that my objective for the conference is to meet as many people as possible in similar positions as me.

It’s pure networking and I hate it. When I ran my own business, it was the one thing that would make me want to stay in bed hiding under the covers. It was this weakness that limited the growth of my business. I’m not a meet-and-greeter. I don’t like and have a hard time doing small talk.

But in this case, what’s best for our company is that I get to know my peers in other parts of the country.

Being an introvert, the idea of putting myself in front of total strangers and interacting with them horrifies me. And yet, I know it’s what I need to do. Fortunately, there are many tools to help me. Apart from Rubin’s The Four Tendencies, there are a whole slew of books on being an introvert in an interactive world that can help me push through the dread and reach the other side where satisfaction and success wait.

How do you deal with tasks that you simply can’t put off?

How consistent are you?

I have a great app, called TimeHop, that reminds me each day of what I’ve posted on social media one year ago, two years ago, and so on. The other day it reminded me of a word I’d chosen to represent all my good intentions for one particular year: consistency.

The promise included running regularly, writing daily, doing a better job of avoiding the foods that make me feel unwell, etc…

However, I obviously didn’t pay much attention to the promise to myself because years later consistency is still my weakness. Other than yoga classes, exercise is an on-and-off thing. Writing regularly became writing almost never. And I still battle daily the urge to eat foods that cause me health problems.

Why is this so?

Leo Babauta over at Zen Habits wrote a great article about this issue in his post 10 Reasons Why We Don’t Stick to Things. In summary, the ten reasons are:

  1. We don’t take it seriously.
  2. We just forget.
  3. We run from discomfort or uncertainty.
  4. We give in to temptation, out of habit.
  5. We rationalize.
  6. We renegotiate.
  7. We dislike the experience and avoid things we dislike.
  8. We forget why it’s important.
  9. We get down on ourselves or give up in disappointment.
  10. There are too many barriers.

I’m guilty of all ten reasons. Let’s take my health as an example: While do not have celiac disease, I am very sensitive to gluten. When I include gluten in my diet, I suffer from fibromyalgia-like symptoms (I get brain fog, I hurt all over, and I become increasingly inflexible), my rosacea flares up, and I gain weight as if I were eating double the calories I’m consuming.

  1. And yet, when faced with eating better, I say “m’eh, tomorrow” as if my health wasn’t important.
  2. Put a shortbread cookie in front of me and it’s in my mouth before I remember that I’m not supposed to eat it.
  3. Given that the anti-gluten craze is at an all-time high, I feel uncomfortable telling people I can’t eat it because I don’t want them to think I’m some sort of food fad follower.
  4. I adore anything that is wheat-based: bread, cake, pie, cookies, pizza — you name it; if it has wheat it in, I love it.
  5. My favorite rationalization is that “one day won’t hurt me” but then one becomes two, or three and then a month.
  6. I also tell my body that it’s overreacting and that a little gluten won’t hurt it, that tomorrow I’ll do better.
  7. I’m not a fruit fan, and hate having to make myself other food, or choose not to eat out. It’s too awkward and uncomfortable to make healthy choices.
  8. And once I’m off gluten for a while and feeling fantastic, I completely forget what it’s like to be in pain and fuzzy-headed.
  9. When all of the above reasons for not avoiding gluten don’t work and I indulge on pizza and sandwiches, I tell myself that it’s impossible and I should just learn to live in discomfort.
  10. And finally, Spain has a bread-based culinary culture. While there are more and more non-gluten options available, they are usually more expensive and rather cardboard-like in taste and texture. As a foodie, eating healthily is a nigh impossible task.

I could run through the same exercise with my fitness regime, my writing, and to be honest, with any goal I’ve set myself. When it comes down to the word consistency, however, all ten reasons are excuses. There’s only one question I have to ask myself.

How much do I really want this?

I’ve achieved a lot of goals in my life, and difficult ones at that. And in every case, the success has come from being able to answer this question with the following:

I don’t just want this, I am driven to follow this path to the end.

If consistency is a challenge for you as well, perhaps the words of others might help you create that drive for success that you’re currently lacking.

Year-round resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are an ancient ritual, stretching all the way back to the Babylonians and the Romans who made promises to their gods to do things better in the coming year.

However, just because something has been done for a very long time, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessary, or even useful. And, to be honest, how many people do you know actually follow through on their resolutions? Fitness centres rely on resolutions for a influx of income knowing that the majority of new clients will only attend classes for a few weeks, but will actually pay for several months, or even a full year.

One of the main reasons that I don’t like New Year’s resolutions is that they set us up for a fall and create a failure mentality. Despite knowing that we are unlikely to follow through on our resolutions, we promise ourselves quite often outrageous things, possibly even fundamental changes in who we are. (For me that would be resolving to go to networking events in the city and thus go against my introvert nature.)

When we make unrealistic resolutions, we are basically telling ourselves that we aren’t good enough as we are and need to change. All you need to do is look at common resolutions to see how poorly we think of ourselves:

  • Lose weight (I’m fat.)
  • Be more positive (Life sucks.)
  • Get out of debt (I’m not financially responsible.)
  • Improve my career (I hate my job.)
  • Learn something new (I’m ignorant/uncultured/lazy.)
  • Get organized (I’m a disaster.)
  • Be nicer (I’m a grump.)

And the list goes on and on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for introspection and self-improvement, but doing it once a year in a fervor of self-punishment is not the best way to achieve a goal.

I believe a much better way is the following:

  • Know yourself. What type of person are you? What works for you? What doesn’t? Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies is a great book to read if you want a simple and efficient way of answering these questions.
  • Examine your life. What’s working? What isn’t? Don’t look at your perceived faults and failings. Take a look at where you want to be and where you are in that process. By doing so, you remove the personal judgement and make it an objective review of your objectives. Burnett’s and Evans’ The Designing Your Life Workbook is a good tool for that.
  • Monitor your progress and set up regular reviews. As I have been doing with my Bullet Journal experiment, check in regularly with your objectives. Progress needs to be examined on a weekly basis at the very least (if not daily), the circumstances need to be reviewed, and minor alterations in course need to be made. For me the Bullet Journal system has been working very well so far.

So, instead of asking you what you resolutions are, I’ll ask you what goals you are working on and what progress you’re making with them.

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?