Working in groups productively

We live in a condominium of 15 floors with 4 units per floor. While that might not sound like a lot of units to high-rise dwellers in cities like Toronto or New York, here in the Basque Country, it’s considered a huge number of neighbors.

While normally we are quite happy with the set up, at times having so many neighbors can create friction, such as when work needs to be done on the building as a whole.

Over two years ago, shortly after we moved in, the company that administers the building announced that the government was requiring an inspection of the state of the building (it’s over 50 years old). This study revealed that while the façade is in good shape, many balconies and window sills are in danger of crumbling.

Finally, this year it looks like the work is going to start, but we still have the biggest hurdle to leap — getting neighbors to choose which company will do the work.

When the project was first announced, my husband and I spoke and we decided that I would join the committee that would review the proposals and make recommendations to the neighbors. Once the project is underway, this committee will also meet with the construction company to make sure everything is going as planned and that the building as a whole stays informed about the project.

I could have decided not to bother getting involved, as the majority of the unit owners have done, but we plan on living here for at least a couple of decades more and we care about our home just as much as any homeowner.

And I have to say that I’ve really appreciated my organizing background during the process as it has helped keep everything and everyone on track while minimizing arguments and chaos.

Specifically, being organized has helped me in the following ways:

Short, effective meetings: I hate meetings that constantly go off topic and last forever. For that reason, I have gone to every meeting with the basic tools of paper and pen, and with questions prepared to ask the administrator or the construction company reps. Most of the others on the committee have lived in the building or neighborhood their whole lives, and they can easily get distracted by other topics. Gently, but firmly, I pull them back on topic, and being the “new” neighbor, they realize that they are merely reminiscing and then they get back to business.

Simple visuals: The proposals and budgets we were given to study were twenty pages each and filled with technical details and column after column of numbers. Even the summary the architect gave us was incomprehensible. To make sure I understood the situation correctly and that we weren’t missing information, I created a four-page summary with the following:

  • What will / won’t be done
  • Guarantees
  • Cost comparisons
  • Financing options
  • Optional additional work
  • Pros & cons of each company

I took this summary to subsequent meetings. The administrator and architect corrected a few items that I had confused, and cleared up questions that all of us had.

Only essential information: An even shorter two-page version has been given to every neighbor to be used as the basis for discussion; removing options, personal opinions of the committee, and details of the work to be done. The debate is going to be heated because it involves a lot of money so we decided to remove any extra information that might be used as an excuse to argue more. Basically, the government has declared that the work is necessary, and the only decision to be made is which construction company will do the work. Anything not related to that decision has been cut out completely.

Learning from similar projects: In our area there are twelve towers of the same style that were built at the same time. Several of them have already had this work done. Using the connections that the long-time residents have, we’ve learned what extra work is not worth the effort and what details to pay attention to. For example, in a recent renovation two towers over, the balcony design included tear-shaped posts. When the wind comes down over the mountain, the new balconies now whistle. We will definitely be avoiding fancy balcony designs.

So that’s my situation. But what does this have to with all of you? How can my experience help you?

Whenever working on committees, whether it’s for a renovation in the building you live in, or an upcoming volunteer event, here are the four basic principles that can be applied to any project:

  • Short, effective meetings: Respect people’s time. If meetings go on too long or wander about, volunteers will be more likely to quit. If people want to chat, organize a post-meeting coffee where participants can go as far off topic as they like.
  • Simple visuals: In any project, there is always an insane amount of information to be sifted through and decisions to be made. Reducing the options to simple tables and bullet points filters out extraneous information and focuses the decisions on what’s really important.
  • Only essential information: While transparency is important, very rarely does everyone need to know everything. Create a committee to filter out details that the rest of the stakeholders don’t need. Also, when providing just the essential information, the committee ensures that decisions already made at the committee level aren’t rehashed by everyone else.
  • Learning from similar projects: As the phrase “there’s nothing new under the sun” implies, we can always learn something by looking for similar situations in the past. What worked, what didn’t, etc…

Am I missing anything? What has your experience working on committees taught you about being productive in groups?

The power of writing it down

“Keep everything in your head or out of your head. In-between, you won’t trust either one.” ~ David Allen.

We’ve written about David Allen’s Getting Things Done several times at Unclutterer. In a nutshell, it’s a system of best practices around doing what you need to do. It’s easy to get “on the wagon” so to speak, and it’s just as easy to fall off. This weekend I spent five hours getting back on, and it’s been great.

Today, I have 86 open projects between work and home, and I feel great about every one. I haven’t made significant progress on any of them. Nor have I ticked off any major milestones or delegated the more repetitive tasks. What did was to get them out of my head and organize them into a system I trust.

As David Allen would say (and I’m paraphrasing here), your brain is not for storing to-dos, it’s for solving problems. When you ask it to do the former, it causes stress. If you’ve ever had a moment when you’ve thought, “Oh no! I need to do [x]!” when there was no chance of doing so, you’ll know it’s the worst. Getting tasks out of your head and into a trusted system can eliminate that feeling.

Last weekend, I sat down and wrote out all of the outstanding projects I need to work on. I define a project as anything that takes more than one step to complete so “draft an outline for volunteer orientation” and “get the oil changed in my car” are both treated as projects.

Once everything is written down, I organize it in a project management system I trust. For me, that system is Todoist (I’ve written about Todoist here before). It’s not the only solution, but it works well for me. I list the project and each step that must be done before the project can be marked as completed.

Once that’s done, I can look at the list of 86 open projects and feel on top of all of it. I know what needs to get done. I know the steps I have to take. I know exactly how to make progress on all of it — and I don’t worry about forgetting things! Finally, nothing feels better than clicking the little checkbox next to a completed task.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take the time to do a “mind dump” and get everything out of your head and into a trusted system, whether it be a piece of software or simply a list. It will help you feel good about all of your projects, no matter how many you have.

Do we outsource our memory too much?

Recently I started a new course that’s rather stressful and time-consuming. To prepare for it, at work, I wrote down everything I have to do between now and my August holidays. For Unclutterer, I didn’t do anything because Jacki has a lovely Google Calendar with all our publishing dates. And I informed my husband of when I would need to work on my course so that he wouldn’t feel ignored.

All good things, right? Communication, written task lists, and using sharing technology to its fullest. The height of personal organization.

But then, at work in doing one of my monthly tasks, I left half of it undone. Plus I didn’t go look at Jacki’s calendar and almost missed a publishing date (thanks for reminding me, Jacki). The only thing that didn’t go wrong was my relationship.

I asked myself why that happened.

I began by looking at my task list at work. When I’d written down the monthly task, I wrote down only the information for the first part of the task and nothing about the second. When I relied solely on my memory, I always went through a mental checklist to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Having written it down, I didn’t feel the need to go through that list and didn’t even remember the second part existed and it’s something I’ve been doing monthly for over 3 years!

Then I thought about the calendar and why I didn’t consult it. Lack of habit and assuming that I already knew it. I have to admit that last one is a biggie for me. I get convinced of something so much that I don’t bother checking to make sure that it is true.

This led me to wonder about using lists, relying on memory, or employing technology. Which works best and why?

With smartphones and prior to that day-planners, we have external memory devices around us all the time. No need to actually remember anything, right? But is that lazy of us? Over on Life Hacker, Thorin Klosowski did a personal experiment back in 2012 where he stopped relying on anything other than his brain to remember what he had to do and where he had to go.

To make sure he did everything he needed to, he would walk himself through the day each morning, similar to what I did for my monthly work tasks before making the mistake of half-writing them down. He found the experiment extremely helpful and although he didn’t stick to a brain-only memory prompt, he did decide to rely less on paper and technology.

Fascinated by Klosowski’s experiment, I thought I’d go see what else was out there and found an article in Wired from 2014 that looked at an experiment that tested people’s ability to remember things with or without the ability to write it down first. The results did not support note-taking as a memory tool. Those who relied solely on memory performed better.

“Okay, okay, maybe these are two isolated incidents,” I said to myself. “Let’s see what else is out there.”

Moving up to 2016, Motherboard published an article about how using technology to remember tasks makes it easier to forget them.

The author, Rachel Pick, was in a situation really close to mine — lots of commitments with different dates and requirements and no simple way to merge them all into a single list. She tried a physical planner, but just like me, she forgot to take it with her. She then tried apps, which were either too complex or too restrictive.

She finally tried Google Keep (which I use to remember restaurants in other cities, birthday gift ideas for my husband, and things that we have to take to the cottage). And she liked it, so much so that if something wasn’t written down in the app, it was like it never existed.

Being a curious person, Pick spoke with a neuroscientist to find out why this was happening. What he told her was basically what Klosowski discovered on his own — Pick was outsourcing her memory to Google Keep and was changing the way neurons were firing in her brain.

What was the neuroscientists advice? Rely more on memory and less on tools.

With so many things going on in my life, I can’t rely on just my memory, but what I have to do is start asking myself, “Are you sure that’s all? Are you missing anything?” and go through my mental checklists with paper and technology acting as prompts and light support only.

Organize big and little tasks at work

I recently started a new job in a field that I left about 20 years ago. It’s been like getting back on a (rusty) bike. I know how to do what I need to do, but it’s been a while since I’ve done it. Today, I’m about five months in and finally enjoying some job satisfaction, much of which comes from managing the big projects and the little tasks.

The big projects are easy, because they become little tasks. That is, the right kind of little tasks. For example, let’s say I have to write a proposal. If I were to concentrate on “write a proposal,” I’d get stressed. There’s a lot to do. However, when the project is broken down into small, easy-to-manage chunks it becomes much easier. Day one becomes “Research one aspect of the proposal.” Sure, I can do that!

These little tasks that you define, control, and push towards a goal are gratifying. However, I want to talk today about the annoying tasks — the repetitive, inefficient, inescapable tasks. Those tasks can be annoying, yet when well-managed, they can significantly increase job satisfaction.

The first step is to get organized. List the little tasks and administrative duties that must be done. Perhaps it’s daily email triage or short summary reports that are due every Friday. I like to move important information out of email and into Todoist. Whatever those tasks are for you, keep listing until you’ve got all the tasks written down.

Next, set aside the right time to devote to them. I say the right time because that’s important. Some of my tasks don’t take a lot of time or energy so I reserve them for the end of the work day, when I’m running low on both. This way I reserve my creative energy earlier in the day for dealing with the big stuff.

But the biggest benefit is that I can complete many of these small tasks in a short period of time. It’s tremendously rewarding to mark something as complete. These tasks are quick and easy, so you get the joy of four, five, even ten in a row! It’s a great feeling and can help increase your overall job satisfaction.

Try to identify the minor hassles in your day-to-day work, and set aside a block of time that’s dedicated to addressing them. You’ll find it is a very rewarding practice.

How to get started when you don’t feel like it

Unclutterer readers are the get-things-done type when it comes to productivity and uncluttering except when they don’t want to be.

Occasionally, we all feel like getting exactly nothing done. Sometimes that’s fine. I love a lazy Saturday as much as the next guy. But other times the urge to relax out comes at the worst time. What do we do in that situation? First of all, recognize that you’re not the first person to feel this way. Next, understand that there is something you can do.

Here’s how to get started on a project when it’s the last thing you feel like doing. Let’s start with two simple steps.

First, give yourself permission to do a bad job. The tendency to want everything to be great hindered my writing for a long time. I changed my thinking and would say to myself, “Today, I give myself permission to write a terrible first draft.” When I wrote a sentence that I knew was complete garbage, I was able to continue because I knew I would go back and fix it another time.

The same goes for uncluttering and organizing. Tell yourself it’s OK if your first attempt doesn’t generate the ideal result. Just get started.

Next, and this is a big one, completely disconnect from the internet. No Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, or online games. There isn’t a bigger time waster on the planet. Avoid it and you’ll be more productive.

Of course there’s more to it than those basic tips. For example, getting in the right mindset is crucial. It can be as simple as clothing and as complex as a daily routine.

In his book “ Getting Things Done,” author David Allen states, “I don’t feel like exercising until I put my exercise clothes on.” Author James Clear expanded on this idea:

“If you look at top performers in any field, you’ll see similar patterns all over the place. NBA players who do the same thing before every free throw shot. Comedians who recite the same words before they step onto stage. Corporate executives who follow the same meditation sequence every morning.

Do you think these people always feel motivated? No way. There are some days when the most talented people in the world wake up feeling like sluggish lard bombs.

But they use their pre–game routines to pull them into the right mental state, regardless of how they feel. You can use this same process to overcome your motivation threshold and consistently exercise, study, write, speak, or perform any other task that is important to you.”

James outlines just how to create a routine that will work. Paraphrasing, it is:

  1. Start with something too easy to avoid.
  2. Get physically moving.
  3. Keep it consistent.

Often times, we procrastinate in the face of feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes we just don’t know where to begin. I combat this by each night by writing down the three tasks I must complete during the following day. That little note sits on my keyboard and answers the question, “Where do I start?”.

Good luck with your new projects in 2017. Here’s hoping you accomplish all you set out to do and more.

Three small, useful tools

These three small, useful tools help me save time and be more productive.

Universal socket

20161209_universal_socketAfter living in Canada, England and now the United States, we have items that have been built with both SAE and metric-sized nuts and bolts. It is time-consuming, not to mention frustrating, going back and forth to the toolbox trying to figure out if the bolt is 12mm, 13mm or ½ inch-sized. The universal socket saves me time. I only have to grab this one socket for multiple jobs. It also works on nuts and bolts whose corners have been slightly ground-down causing ordinary wrenches to slip. It is also useful in fastening and detaching odd-shaped things like hooks and eyes. It won’t take the place of a heavy-duty socket set that a car mechanic might need but it is amazingly useful for all those jobs around the house.

Damaged screw remover set

20161209_screw_remover_setWe’ve lived in rental housing most of our lives. To do small repairs, sometimes we need to remove screws that are rusty, damaged or covered with layers and layers of paint. The damaged screw remover set has been very useful. These bits fit easily into a multi-head screwdriver or power drill and remove all types of screws including slot, Philips, Robertson, hex and Torx. This little kit has saved us from a lot of heartache (and smashed fingers) and made repair jobs much easier.

Glass cutter

I originally purchased a glass cutter for a weekend craft course on stained glass windows. Since then, I’ve used the glass cutter several times and I’m really glad we have it. Almost every time we move, the glass in a picture frame or a mirror gets broken.20161209_glass_cutter
With the glass cutter (and leather gloves and safety glasses) I have been able to cut the glass down to smaller sizes so I can wrap it in cardboard (usually a cereal box) and safely dispose of it.

Do you have small tools like these that you just can’t live without? Please share your stories with our readers in the comments.

Being productive with Nextdoor, for uncluttering and more

About a year ago I joined my local Nextdoor community. For those who aren’t aware of Nextdoor, it’s a “private social network for your neighborhood.” Nextdoor is currently available in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.

As a locally focused network, Nextdoor won’t have messages about national politics. The following are the kinds of messages I usually see:

  • Lost and found pets: dogs, cats, and chickens
  • Other lost and found items, including keys, phones, and jewelry
  • Items for sale (or items being given away for free)
  • Items people are looking for (usually free or inexpensive)
  • Requests for a good painter, plumber, handyperson, house cleaner, etc.
  • Notices about local events
  • Notices about local road closures

As with any such network, taking time to use it effectively will pay off. If you’re using Nextdoor (or considering such use in the future), please keep the following suggestions in mind.

Choose your notification options carefully

Nextdoor lets you choose to get emails about every post from your neighborhood (and top posts from nearby neighborhoods), no emails at all, or something in between. You can also choose to get a daily digest, and the contents of that digest can be customized a bit. You can also select which “nearby neighborhoods” you want to see messages from, whether that’s via email or on the Nextdoor website or mobile app.

You can also choose to get mobile alerts about urgent items: missing children, natural disasters, etc.

You may not be sure which messages you want to get at first, so just make your best guess and then adjust as necessary after you’ve been in the network for a while.

Use good subject lines

Just as with email, you will make everyone’s life a bit easier if the subject line makes it obvious what your message is about. I get a lot of Nextdoor emails every day, and I want to be able to quickly scan to see which ones may be of interest.

I saw a message this week with the subject line “Hi all” — which wound up being someone who was looking for a vacuum cleaner. A subject line saying “Wanted: vacuum cleaner” or “Need a vacuum cleaner” would have been a whole lot better.

Similarly, a lost and found message entitled “Lost bracelet at or around Farmers Market” is much better than one that just says “bracelet.”

Include good photos when relevant

Just as you would with Craigslist, be sure to include good photos if you’re offering something for sale (or even for free). Even if it’s something where the looks don’t matter (such as tickets to an event) or something pretty standard (like a Kindle), a photo can help because the message will look better in the online listings.

This is one area where I want to commend my neighbors, who have generally done a good job of this. One person even included a picture of the “free clean dirt” being offered — which got taken pretty quickly!

Also consider photos when posting about lost or found items or pets.

I haven’t yet used Nextdoor to give things away, since my local freecycle group usually works fine for that. But I have some china to get rid of, and I just might try selling it on Nextdoor.

Organize your Google Drive

1610_google_drive_logoFor online document editing and collaboration, Google Drive is still king. Last month, Bradley Chambers said the following while writing for The Sweet Setup:

“When it comes to needing an easy way to share a document with someone, Google is still the standard choice for me and most people I work with. The fact that they were always a web-first platform has given them a head start in the interface and syncing technology.”

That’s exactly why I continue to use it: free, web-based (which means nearly ubiquitous access to your files), easy and accessible.

But just like any tool, your Google Drive can become disorganized.

Here, I’ll describe some best practices you can adopt to organize the files you’ve got stored in Google Drive. Let’s begin with something simple: sorting.

Get sorted

Once you’ve got a lot of files on your Drive, it can be tricky to find the one you’re looking for. Fortunately, you can quickly sort the list. First, click the button on the top right to toggle between List View and Grid View. Both sort folders from files, and list view lets your further sort by title or creation date.

Powerful search tools

Google is synonymous with “search” (how many times have you heard someone say, “Google it”?), and as such you’d expect robust search options in its products, like Drive. A simple click reveals that they are in place.

To begin, simply click the search field to perform a search by type: PDF, text, spreadsheet, presentations, photos & images and videos. That’s helpful, but it’s just the start. Click “More search tools” (or the disclosure triangle at the right of the search field) to access a slew of useful features. From there, you can search by:

  1. File type
  2. Date
  3. Title
  4. Words found in the body of the document
  5. The owner (if you’re sharing files with a collaborator)
  6. Who it’s shared with
  7. What folder it’s in
  8. Any “follow up” actions — again, if you’re collaborating

All of this makes it very easy to find the file you need.

Select many files at once

Occasionally you’ll want to move, share or otherwise interact with several files at once. You could click them one at a time, or hold down Shift as you click to select in bulk. This tiny tip can be a huge time-saver.

Look to the stars

You can add a star to any file or folder in Google Drive by right-clicking on it and then selecting the star from the resulting contextual menu. All starred items are immediately accessible from the star menu in the left toolbar. Just don’t go too crazy with this feature, or you’ll have a list of starred items that just as unwieldy as the “un-starred” masses!

Quick preview

You can quickly preview a document without opening it to save a lot of time. Simply click once to select it, and then hit the “eye” icon that appears in the toolbar above to get a peek at what that document contains.

Add-ons

Finally, consider the huge library of add-ons that are constantly being released and refined for Google Drive users. These easily-installed tidbits address all aspects of using the service, with the focus on making it more efficient. PC World recently published a nice round-up of great Google Drive add-ons, including Consistency Checker, which scans your docs for incorrect hyphens and other such errors, as well as Data Everywhere, which makes it easy to share across platforms (Google, Excel, etc.).

I hope this was helpful. As I said, Google Drive is a fantastic collaboration tool. With a little effort, you can make it an efficient, organized experience as well.

The power of an organized daily routine

After working from home for seven years, I know what determines success more than anything else:

An organized routine.

There’s no project management app, list-making strategy or careful balance of work and home life that can top a proven routine for getting things done. In fact, the absence of a good routine hinders those things. Here’s how you can make a strong, organized routine to depend on. Let’s get started.

But first…

First, a note. The word “routine” implies rigidity. “This is the way it is and that’s that.” Well, no. A structured, organized daily routine is not divorced from flexibility. There will be times when, for whatever reason, things don’t pan out as planned:

  • The internet is down
  • Someone is sick
  • A last-minute cancellation
  • The car decides, “Eh, I think I won’t run today.”

When these things happen, and they will, it’s important not to spiral. Something might have to get moved around, postponed or abandoned entirely. A deadline might come and go. It’s always OK to re-work things a bit. Just be aware of that when the time comes. With that said, on with the show.

Let’s build an organized daily routine

Getting started with a routine that’s going to work is easy. It starts with what I call a “mind dump.” It’s a great way to list everything that’s on your mind, but it’s also a fantastic starting point for establishing a new routine, if you ask the right questions. Get a pen and paper, and answer the following:

“What must I get done each day for (work/school/volunteering/etc.)?”
“How much energy do I have at the start/middle/end of each day?”
“Which days offer more free time? Which ones offer less?”
“What are the errands that must be done daily or weekly?”
“What are the chores that must be completed?”

Don’t censor yourself at this stage. Nothing is too big (paint the mud room) or too small (brush teeth). As you go, you might generate your own questions. Perhaps getting prepped for work each morning or ushering the kids out the door for school.

When that’s done, it’s time for “triage.” Much like the triage nurse at the ER, you’re going to decide who (your tasks) get addressed when. In question two, you identified your energy levels throughout the day. Put the most labor-intensive tasks when you’re ready to tackle them, reserving the rest for later.

For example, I’m at my best in the early morning and afternoon. That’s when I write reports or articles, brainstorm new ideas for upcoming projects, work on the podcasts and so on. Meanwhile, I schedule other tasks, like responding to email, at the end of the day when I don’t want to think anymore.

Next, identify where you can do yourself favors. Before bed, I prep for the next morning: lunch ready for work, kids outfits ready for school, a list of my most important to-dos in front of my keyboard. Maybe you can bring a mission-critical paper out to the car so you won’t forget. Making this prep time a part of your daily routine is a huge time-saver (and headache reducer).

Give your brain a chance to do its thing

Your brain is good at solving problems. Make sure your routine includes a chance for it to do so. Most of the people we’d consider geniuses in their fields adhered to a daily routine that included a walk. According to Harvard Business Review:

“Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon — and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Tchaikovsky made do with a two-hour walk, but wouldn’t return a moment early, convinced that cheating himself of the full 120 minutes would make him ill. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck.”

Taking a walk can help your brain function well. That deserves a slot in your routine, no?

I hope this was helpful. A good routine will make your life so much easier. Just remember to be flexible. If plays change on the fly, it’s OK! Go with it and adjust tomorrow. Good luck.

Managing the overwhelmed feeling

I recently read an article in The Onion that, while satire, seemed very close to reality. The whole thing is worth a read, but the following is an excerpt:

Local man Marshall Platt, 34, came tantalizingly close to kicking back and having a good time while attending a friend’s barbeque last night before remembering each and every one of his professional and personal obligations, backyard sources confirmed.

While cracking open his second beer as he chatted with friends over a relaxed outdoor meal, Platt was reportedly seconds away from letting go and enjoying himself when he was suddenly crushed by the full weight of work emails that still needed to be dealt with, looming deadlines for projects that would take a great deal of time and energy to complete, an upcoming wedding he had yet to buy airfare for because of an unresolved issue with his Southwest Rapid Rewards account, and phone calls that needed to be returned. …

According to sources, Platt tried to put his responsibility-laden thoughts out of his mind and loosen up by opening another beer but suddenly remembered a magazine subscription that needed to be renewed by Friday, a medical bill he thought might now be overdue, and the fact that he needed to do laundry by tonight or he would run out of clean socks and underwear.

Many people get this overwhelmed feeling at times. The following are some strategies for dealing with it:

Get everything out of your head and onto a list

That could be a paper to-do list, a collection of sticky notes, a computer file, or a list within an app. You could create multiple lists (as the Getting Things Done methodology would promote) or a single list. But one way or another, have one or more lists that capture all those thoughts about obligations. Just creating a physical or digital list removes some of the stress — you no longer have to keep a mental list and worry about forgetting things — and it gives you a starting point for taking control of your situation and moving forward.

Prioritize by pretending you’re going on vacation

Many of us, as we prepare for vacation, suddenly get very clear about what must be done now vs. what can be put off until later — and the quickest way to deal with things. In the case of the imaginary Marshall, paying the medical bill and doing laundry would jump to the top of the list. But some emails probably don’t need an immediate reply, and those that do need a reply can perhaps get by with a couple sentences rather than five paragraphs. Instead of making an after-work trip to Bed Bath and Beyond for linens (another part of that Onion scenario), maybe buying online would be quicker and less stressful.

Renegotiate deadlines when necessary

If looming project deadlines seem next to impossible to meet, talk with the appropriate people (your boss, your client, etc.) to develop a new plan. Maybe there’s some flexibility in those deadlines. Maybe the scope of the projects can be changed. Maybe someone else can take over some of your non-project tasks to give you more project time.

Focus on the one thing you’re doing now

I remember going into a panic at one of my first jobs because I had so much to do. My wise boss helped me determine what needed to be done first, and then he had me clear my desk of everything not related to that one task. And it worked! I went through my many tasks one at a time, in priority order, focused each time on a single task. And everything got done just fine.

Remember that fun things can be priorities, too

Taking time to go a friend’s barbeque can be just as important as other things on your list. And if you’ve created your to-do list, set priorities, and renegotiated deadlines as necessary, you should be able to truly enjoy some time just having fun.

Get organized at a new job

Transitioning to a new job can be stressful. There’s a new culture to adapt to, a new schedule, new routines, and the desire to demonstrate that you are, in fact, the right person for the job. If you’re returning to the working world after an absence, the stresses are even greater. To keep your anxiety in check, let organizing help you.

New information

Whenever you start a new job, you receive a lot of information all at once. Numerous papers (maybe even binders) from the human resources department (retirement, vacation time, policies and procedures, etc.) and work-specific protocols (how to reserve a meeting room, where to take breaks) all hit you at once.

If you’re working in an office setting, I recommend buying two binders ahead of time or acquire two hanging file folders. Label one binder or hanging file folder Policies and the other Benefits. Then, get dividers for the binder or manilla folders for subdivisions. Sort the papers you receive into the two categories major categories right away. Next, divide those two piles into reference materials and things that require action. The reference material can be safely stored in the appropriate binder, while the actionable forms (retirement, wellness policy, etc.) should be scheduled on your calendar for when to be completed and returned (you’ll likely want to make copies of these documents, too, to keep in your binder/file).

Next, recognize that you probably don’t need to know all of that new information right now. Give yourself permission to read a little bit a day instead of all at once (feel free to schedule this reading time on your calendar, too).

Buy a small, portable notebook

The last time I started a new job in an office setting, it was the first time I had worked outside of my home in many years. I had a lot of questions and a lot to learn. To keep track of it all, I carried around a small notebook. When I learned a new protocol that wasn’t covered in the official documentation, I jotted it down. Even simple things like where to park in the parking lot when it was snowing, how to fill out a help ticket with the IT department, etc. Eventually I had a portable database of answers to assist me in navigating this new experience.

The benefits of my notebook extended beyond portability. For example, it cut down on the number of questions I had to ask. That’s always embarrassing as the new guy. Also, it let me record ideas that I wanted to share in a weekly meeting with my supervisor.

Personal effects

The amount and type of personal stuff you can bring to work — reference books, photos, earphones, bobbleheads — depends on many factors, like the type of work you do, the setting, and the company’s policies. Another factor to consider here is the culture. Do your new co-workers decorate their workspaces? Are you in an office or out in the field? Take a week or so to get a feel for how that stuff is handled before considering what to do with your desk.

Quick tips

Lastly, there are a few quick tips that you will probably want to adopt, no matter what your new gig entails:

  1. Find a veteran at the company who can answer questions and help you navigate the daily grind who isn’t your boss or supervisor — a buddy to explain all the little stuff. Keep it casual and try not to overwhelm the person, too.
  2. Set expectations. Ask your supervisor for a weekly check-in meeting, at least for the first month.
  3. Be clear on the company’s dress code before your first day. A quick call to the human resources department will help you with this before you buy a new wardrobe or show up in a suit while everyone else is in jeans and t-shirts.
  4. Politely ask how people wish to be addressed. Does your boss wish to be called Bob or Mr. Barker? And, if you’re unsure as to how to pronounce a co-worker’s name, again politely ask for guidance and practice until you get it right. The last thing you want to do is be at a company for years and then learn you’ve said someone’s name wrong the entire time.

Good luck! Starting a new job is exciting and with a little organization you can get past the initial anxiety quickly.

Digital notes to manage kids’ activities

Digital note apps are fantastic for easily taking information with you. I use Evernote as my cold storage for reference material. (That is, information that doesn’t require action, but might be useful in the future.) This has been my primary use for digital tools for years … until I had kids.

Today, I’m constantly recording information into Evernote to help me manage everything related to my kids. For example, I need to remember the address for Jane’s mom’s/dad’s house, or the dance studio, all the soccer fields, and so on, and this recorded information helps me do it. If it weren’t for a digital notes app, I’d end up texting my wife for that information or asking the kids to text their friends and then share the answers with me — a total waste of time.

To keep things organized and to save me time, I use text documents in Evernote for each new piece of information. I’ve designed what I refer to as a “Kid Info Database.” Any text note I create includes all of the following relevant tags:

  • Daughter’s name
  • Son’s name
  • Friends
  • Address
  • Activity

That’s it. I can search any of those tags and bring up all the relevant notes. For example, “Jane Address Grace Friends” brings up the driving directions to Jane’s house as well as a live link to Google Maps. The same goes for dance, scouts, and sports. It’s easy to set up and is very useful.

I can add to the list at any time simply by adding one of the tags to the notes I create. The link to Google Maps is excellent too, as I can get turn-by-turn directions from any starting point. Leaving Jane’s mom’s house and heading to the dance studio? No problem.

Using Evernote in this way has been a real shift for me as, like I said, I’ve always considered apps like Evernote to be a digital filing cabinet. Now, it’s a dynamic database that I use daily. If you’re like me, give this a try. It’s better than constantly texting people, “What is Jane’s address again?”