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?”

Easily assemble a new product

I remember the specific look of dread that would cross my father’s face when he would see “some assembly required” on a toy or item we acquired as kids. And I’m pretty sure that look has crossed my face a time or two, as well. Who needs that stress, right? Not dad, not me, and not you. Fortunately, if you’re willing to spend a little extra time and adopt some persnickety behavior, you can say goodbye to the intimidation of “some assembly required” in the future.

The key to moving past “some assembly required” anxiety is organization. I follow (and recommend you do the same) these steps, in the same order, every time.

Step one is read the instructions completely before beginning. I mean from start to finish, before you lift a single screwdriver or hammer, read all the instructions. This way you’ll know what tools you’ll need, what techniques are expected of you, and how much space and time you’ll need to get things done. Will the kitchen table suffice? The living room floor or even the back yard? Figure that all out before you begin.

The second step is to gather the tools you’ll need. Go and grab the hammer, screwdriver, tape measure, or whatever is necessary. Now you’re almost be ready. In addition to those things, I regularly add the following:

  1. A plastic bowl. This is used to store screws, nuts, bolts, and any other small, easily lost parts while working. These small bits won’t roll away or disappear into the carpet when they’re safely contained.
  2. A designated trash bin. It’s annoying to have torn cardboard, plastic, and other trash in your work area. I always grab a trash can, trash bag, or box to be the designated spot for trash as I work.
  3. My smartphone. Occasionally the written instructions aren’t clear. When that happens, I search YouTube for a video that might help. Often I’ll find a clip of someone putting the very thing together and it’s very helpful. You might also want to snap a picture if you discover a broken part or want to keep a copy of any product information.

Step three is the persnickety bit I mentioned, so bear with me. In this step you’re going to confirm that all of the parts are present and functional, and get them ready to go.

  1. Identify each part against the assembly instructions. Is “Dial A” and “Pole B” in the box? Great. Remove each part from its packaging. Put the packaging in the trash bin.
  2. Inspect each part to ensure that it’s not broken. It’s better to make this discovery now, instead of when you’re halfway done.
  3. Lay out all of the parts in a neat, easily-accessed grid in your work area. This is the part that makes my kids roll their eyes. I put each part on my work surface in a neat little arrangement. This way I can see and grab exactly what I need instantly.

At last, it’s time to put the thing together, and you’re fully prepared. You know what the process entails, you’ve got the trash out of the way, the necessary tools are in place, and each part has been inspected, accounted for, and prepped.

This does take a few extra minutes and can seem nitpicky, but it’s worth it. I hope this helps and that you, too, can laugh in the face of “some assembly required” by being well organized as you work.

A straightforward seven-step process to achieve your goals

This coming weekend will mark a first for me: I’m competing in a sprint triathlon. As with any activity requiring preparation (moving, changing jobs, going away to school), there has been a great deal of planning and organizing involved to get ready for the race. When I made the decision to work toward this goal back in January, I felt like a project manager as I tried to figure out how to get to where I am today. Ultimately, I decided to use a basic, seven-step process to reach my goal.

To give you an idea of where I was before I decided to take on this project, I didn’t know how to swim. I could float around and not drown, but I didn’t know how to swim laps or do any proper strokes. I’d also never been on a racing bike, and the only bike in my garage was my two-year-old daughter’s, complete with training wheels. I couldn’t run a mile continuously and the idea of swimming, biking, and running back-to-back-to-back genuinely terrified me. I needed skills, gear, training, and confidence.

The first step in the planning process for this triathlon was the same as it is for any project: research and gather information. I read The Triathlete’s Training Bible, Triathlon Anatomy, and a couple more books. I jumped on YouTube and watched videos from races. I learned about all the equipment I’d need (swim goggles, a racing bike, fast-drying triathlon clothing, gym membership, running shoes …) and put together a rough estimate of how much it would cost and how much race expenses would be (hotel, travel, race registration). I extensively studied dietary needs for athletes. This is also the point where I saw my doctor for a physical and underwent other forms of athletic testing (anaerobic threshold, body fat and lean mass analysis, etc.) with a triathlon coach to learn as much as I could about my body.

The second step in the planning process was to evaluate the gathered information and decide if I wanted to proceed toward the goal as anticipated. In a typical project, this step might include changing the goal or moving the completion date or deciding if you need to bring in additional resources before continuing. You look at the information gathered and analyze it to see if you can achieve your goal. For me, the decision was much more personal in nature. I have a genetic disorder that makes competing in triathlons not the best idea I’ve ever had. My disability doesn’t prohibit me from doing a triathlon, but it certainly makes things more complicated. So, I had to decide if I wanted to continue knowing the risks and my limitations. I decided to continue, but I also had to agree to do everything I possibly could to reduce my risk of injury and complications.

The third step is mostly complete after the research stage, but it’s important to create an official budget for the project. No matter the project, be sure to build in a line item for unexpected expenses. Then, maybe, triple that line item. (I forgot I’d have to pay for childcare, for example.)

The fourth step is a lot of people’s favorite step: create timelines and to-do lists. This is the point where you identify what needs to get done, by whom, and when. As I previously mentioned, I needed to take lessons on how to swim and how to ride a racing bike. I had to weight train and build endurance. I also needed to overhaul my diet so I wouldn’t do damage to my body, which meant months of meal planning. I created milestones and points where I would check-in with my coach (for a work project, this would be where you check in with your client) and points to evaluate how my training was going so I could make changes, if necessary, as I progressed. Be specific during this step — swim 30 laps, pack two boxes, sort through one dresser drawer, write 1,500 words — so that it is clear to you each day when you look at your calendar exactly what you need to do.

The fifth step is the hardest and (typically) the longest: do the work every day. Once everything is in place, it’s time to get your hands dirty. This is when you crank the widgets. I joined a gym with a pool. I bought a racing bike. Some days I was up at 5:00 a.m. for swim classes. Other days it was raining or freezing or extremely hot and training was the last thing I wanted to do, but if I wanted to reach my goal I had to do it. You write the code or build the house or pack all your belongings into boxes.

The sixth step I have yet to complete on this project, but it’s my favorite step in the process: complete your goal. For me, this will be Saturday when I (hopefully) cross the finish line.

The seventh step is the final one and often the most overlooked: evaluate your performance. Once a project is finished, it is tempting to move on to the next project without taking the time to identify what went right, what didn’t, and your final expenses and time sheets. But doing so will help you in the future — the next time you move or build a website for a client or compete in a triathlon. This information will be a valuable resource to you in the future, so take the time to complete this step and help your future self. You won’t regret it.

All of these steps are intuitive, but that doesn’t mean you won’t want to rush ahead to start with step four before doing steps one through three. Or be so happy to be finished with step six that you skip step seven. Do all of these steps and you’ll be well on your way to achieving your goals. Taking on a large project also can create anxiety, but breaking it down and going through this process will help you to see that your goal can be reached.

Apps for your student

Technology is routine for the modern student. And that technology can help your favorite student to stay organized and productive this school year.

Tinycards from Duolingo helps young students learn a language with engaging, fun, and effective lessons. My daughter’s Spanish class started using it when she was in 7th grade. Now, the company has released Tinycards, a flashcards app (free, iPhone only) that’s as handy as it is beautiful. There are thousands of pre-made decks to choose from, or you can make custom sets to support specific course material.

By late elementary school, students take on the extra responsibility of managing their time and duties. myHomework Student Planner is an app that will help them do just that. Available for iOS devices, Android, and Windows, this comprehensive solution lets tech-savvy students toss out the paper planner and go digital with a nearly ubiquitous access to all of their assignments that’s synchronized across devices for them. Students can get reminders of what’s due, browse their class schedules, and check in on assignments. Plus, it looks great.

Speaking of college students, EasyBib quickly creates bibliography citations for use in an academic paper. There are hundreds of styles available, from APA to who-knows-what. You can even use it to scan a book’s bar code to create the citation. EasyBib is available for both iPhone and Android devices. As someone who wrote a lot of papers in APA format, I can say it’s quite nice to have an organized and portable style guide like this.

My last pick has a bit of environmentalism built into it. Forest (available for iPhone and Android), lets you set aside time for concentration and study. Simply pick your work time and get started. As you work, a small on-screen seedling grows into a beautiful tree. What’s very cool is that a real tree results as well. As you use the app, your earn in-game currency that you can spend to plant real trees. Forest’s developers have partnered with Trees for the Future, a non-profit organization that will plant a real tree for every 2500 currency you “spend” in the app. Neat.

The new school year is upon here and finding the right app for you or your kid can help make the year more productive, organized, and educational.

Gadgets to make yard work effective and fun

One trick I learned years ago is that a fun toy, gadget, or tool can make a task I dislike more pleasant to do. My FitBit encourages me to walk, for instance. Likewise, a beautiful ledger helps me work on my family’s budget. With this in mind, I decided to tackle another chore I typically avoid: Yard work.

Yard work isn’t so bad in the spring and fall, when the weather is nice and it’s pleasant to be outdoors. But in the summer, ugh. Heat, humidity, and the ever-present, thin layer of sweat prompt me to procrastinate and then grumble the entire time I finally do it. To get past this frustration, I discovered three tools that I enjoy so much, I’m eagerly willing to push my way through the humidity and heat and do a little yard work.

An expandable hose is the first item. I’ll admit it, I thought this was a goofy gimmick. My sister sent me one of these as a Father’s Day gift. It was thoughtful, as the hose I had been using for many years had died. “Well,” I thought, “this thing looks weird but I’ll try it out.”

After one use I was a complete convert. This lightweight hose does in fact expand at an impressive rate, without sacrificing durability. It feels well-made. When you’re done, simply spray out any remaining water and watch it grow smaller and smaller. The result is lightweight and flexible enough to be stored away with ease.

The second item is The Handy Camel, which is a Chip Clip on steroids. I do a lot of planting, and I’m often hauling heavy bags of soil around. They’re awkward, floppy, and love to spill. Enter the Handy Camel. This thing does in fact behave like a Chip Clip. Just snap it over the opening of a 40-pound bag and use the handle to carry it around like a suitcase.

The third item puts an end to spilling gasoline when trying to fill your gas-powered lawn mower. The Surecan stops that mess. They’re made of sturdy plastic and the brilliant inverted design lets you fill a small-engine tank with the ease of a trigger. No more smelling like gas for the rest of the day or worse, accidentally splashing gas on hot parts of the mower.

I’m not usually one to recommend buying more stuff to stay productive, but if a tool or gadget makes a task so much more enjoyable that you actually do it and don’t hate it, I’m all for it. Simple living is about living free of distractions — and loathing an activity is certainly a distraction.

Tackling major projects

Your to-do lists probably include many small tasks, but it’s likely that you also have some big projects you would also like to get done: getting in better shape, organizing your home, writing a book, planning a vacation or a major event, etc.

For some people, staying on track to accomplish major tasks can be a real challenge. The following are some ways to make sure things get done:

Make a realistic plan

An unrealistic plan is discouraging — no one likes falling behind. And creating an unrealistic plan means you’ll spend a good amount of time re-planning.

To keep your plan realistic, break big tasks down into smaller ones where you can better estimate the time needed. A project called “organize the house” is hard to estimate, but estimating how long it takes to sort through a box of papers is much easier. (And if you have many boxes and haven’t yet gone through any of them, you may want to go through one before finalizing your plan.)

When coming up with a plan, it’s always wise to remember Hofstadter’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” People always tend to underestimate — forgetting some tasks, being too optimistic on how long certain tasks will take, and ignoring all the ways things might go wrong. Try for realistic estimates of each task, and then add some overall contingency time. The more this project differs from anything you’ve done before, the more contingency time you’ll want.

Schedule time to get the tasks done

Once you have a plan, you need to set aside the time to do the tasks on that plan. Some projects don’t even need a detailed plan — they just need dedicated time to accomplish the work. One example is writing a novel, and author Neil Gaiman explained how it’s done:

Set aside time to write that’s only writing time. Put away your phone. Turn off or disable your WiFi. Write in longhand if you wish. Put up a do not disturb sign. And make your writing time sacred and inviolable. 

And in that time, this is the deal. You can write, or you can not do anything. Not doing anything is allowed. (What not doing anything includes: staring at walls, staring out of windows, thinking broodily, staring at your hands. What not doing anything does not include: alphabetising the spice rack, checking Tumblr, taking your pen apart, playing solitaire or running a clean up program on your computer.) …

Doing nothing gets pretty dull. So you might as well write.

This idea extends well beyond a writing project. As Austin Kleon tweeted:

How to X more:

Set aside dedicated time for X.

The end.

Track your progress and celebrate your accomplishments along the way

Tracking your progress against your plan is crucial in case adjustments are necessary. If your plan isn’t working, the sooner you realize the problem, the better. You’ll have more time to work with others, if necessary, to change the deadline, the scope, or the budget to create a more workable plan. Also, keeping track of your estimated times vs. your actual times will let you make better estimates in the future.

Celebrating your progress can help keep you motivated. That can be something simple like a triumphant update on Facebook or Twitter, or (especially for major milestones) something more substantial — providing some sort of treat that’s meaningful to you.

Organize digital lists with Google Keep

Google Keep is the company’s note-taking app and to-do manager that works on nearly every device you throw at it: computer, iPhone, Andriod phone, or tablet. It gets the job done and is quite pleasant to use. If you’re looking for a digital list manager or to-do app, Keep is one to consider.

Keep didn’t get the recognition it deserved upon launch and that’s because of the inevitable, yet unfair comparison, to Evernote and Microsoft’s OneNote. I say unfair because it’s not meant to be the all-encompassing tool that other apps clearly are. Instead, Keep is a synching notepad for Google Drive that lets you quickly record notes, photos, voice memos, lists, and the like to Google Drive, all of which are then accessible via the devices I mentioned earlier. And that’s just the start.

Notes are color-coded and entirely searchable. That means you can search the entire body of a note, not just its title. Speaking of search, that works on notes you’ve deleted, too. That’s because, much like Gmail, notes aren’t deleted but archived out of sight. If you need information you thought you were done with, you can still find it.

Keep is also fast. My yardstick for speed for this type of app is in comparison to pen and paper. While not quite that good, Keep is speedy enough that it will “disappear” as you use it. That is to say, you’re not paying attention to/thinking about the app, you’re just writing down what you need to record.

You can set reminders, create labels, and re-arrange notes, so that similar ones — errands, home, shopping, etc. — are right next to each other.

After more than a week of playing around with Google Keep, I’ve moved it to my iPhone’s home screen (a coveted position). For its speed, simplicity, and cross-device sync, Keep is a keeper.

Investing in good tools

I’m about to buy a new vacuum cleaner, and it’s somewhat expensive.

When I first looked into buying this vacuum cleaner, I winced at the price. But the more I read reviews and thought about what to buy, I decided it was a wise purchase for two reasons:

  • It has the features I need. It will pick up cat hair, and it’s relatively quiet so my cats won’t freak out too much. Having a really good tool should mean I don’t procrastinate about vacuuming as I do now, which just makes the job worse when I do get around to it.
  • It should last much longer than cheaper vacuum cleaners, so I’ll spend less over the long term, and I won’t be sending broken appliances to a landfill. And I won’t need to go through the whole time-consuming what-to-buy decision process again in a couple years.

All of which made me think, once again, about how much good tools can help us be productive and make even tedious tasks more enjoyable. Sometimes all you need is a tool that performs really well, but sometimes “good” can also include aesthetics. Kevin Do is a designer at Grovemade, a company that makes desktop accessories (as well as other things). In a recent interview with website Core77 he said, “When your work space is beautiful you are much more inclined to work.”

One place I’ve found I appreciate some beauty is in my note-taking tools. While I use a digital calendar and address book, I prefer using pen and paper for taking notes when on the phone, when working with clients, etc. My on-the-go tool is a pocket briefcase, but I’ve been making do with basic notepads in my home office. I don’t enjoy using those, though, so I’m planning to indulge in a small splurge and get a really nice notebook.

Looking around my office I see lots of tools that work well for me, including my computer, my scanner, and my shredder, But there’s also my Camelbak Eddy water bottle, which someone once described to me as a sippy cup for adults. Because it’s so easy to take a few sips, I tend to drink more water throughout the day. It’s perfect to have sitting next to me when I’m working at my computer, because I’m not courting disaster as I would be with a normal glass or mug — and two cats who often jump onto the desk.

While I think investing in good tools is often a wise decision, some good tools don’t cost much at all. Moving beyond my office, a tool that works extremely well for me is a specific brand of floss picks. I’ve always found other flossing tools to be awkward to use. But with these it’s easy for me to floss, so I actually do it.

Good tools make us more efficient, help us tackle unpleasant tasks, and add a bit of joy to our daily lives. If there’s a tool you use frequently that isn’t working well for you, replacing it might be a wise choice if your finances allow you to do so.

Being a productive communicator

Are you sometimes frustrated when people don’t reply to your emails, texts, or voicemail messages? The following are two reasons that might be happening.

You chose a suboptimal communication method

When I was a magazine editor, I worked with someone whose preferred method of communication was email. That was fine with me, since I like email, too. But we also worked with a number of writers and photographers, and she sometimes had problems getting them to reply to her messages. I’d often find myself suggesting she try switching techniques and calling the person instead of sending yet another email.

We all have our preferred communication tools, and insisting on yours without recognizing the other person’s preferences can lead to frustration all around. In a professional situation, having a discussion about your preferences and deciding how you’ll work together can help ensure messages get a timely reply. There’s no point in leaving a voicemail message for someone who hates voicemail and never checks it. You may want to note the person’s preferences in whatever tool you use to store phone numbers and email addresses.

Another problem I’ve noticed is someone sending a text message to another person without realizing the number they’re sending it to is a landline that can’t accept texts. If you’re going to be texting with someone, be sure you know that person’s cell phone number. (And remember that some people don’t have cell phones.)

Your email looks too intimidating

Long chatty emails with friends can be delightful. But if you’re sending an email where you want a timely response, it helps to make your message easy to absorb. An email with a bunch of long paragraphs is one that many recipients will skip over on an initial pass through their email inboxes.

To make your email more reader-friendly, you can:

  • Be sure your subject line is descriptive.
  • Use short paragraphs and bullet points.
  • Make sure it’s very clear, preferably near the beginning of the message, exactly what it is you want the other person to do. Include any associated deadlines.
  • Keep the email focused on a single topic. If you combine topics and the recipient isn’t ready to deal with just one of them, you may not hear back about any of them.
  • Be as concise as possible while still conveying all the necessary information. Long rambling messages tend to be ignored, but so do messages that leave the recipient confused.
  • Include all critical information in the body of the message, not in an attachment. And avoid attachments entirely whenever you reasonably can.
  • Take the time to edit your email. I’ve found I can almost always improve on my first pass of an important message.

Fix these two problems and you can be on your way to more timely responses.

Simple, powerful organizing advice

Last week, I came across a helpful article from 2007 on Zen Habits about 27 simple organizing habits. Twenty-seven is a lot of habits, but one of them (a three-parter) really struck me as being essential for an uncluttered life. If you’re looking for straightforward and easy advice to follow, consider adding Leo’s #21 as basic habits to your every day routines:

  1. Write things down
  2. Execute
  3. Tidy up along the way

Write things down

The act of writing things down helps you remember details. Think of the notes you took in college or the shopping list you can “see” in you head. Today more and more people are producing digital notes, but research suggests that’s not the best method as far as recall is concerned.

In 2014, the Association for Psychological Science conducted a study on note-taking and recall. A group of students were told to take notes on a lecture. Half of the subjects used a laptop while the others used pen and paper. While both groups memorized the same number of facts, the pen-and-paper group outperformed their counterparts in tests on the material. Why? It could be because writing is slower.

A recent study by Scientific American suggests that, in a note-taking scenario, we can’t possibly write everything down verbatim. Instead, we must listen closely and record key words or concepts that represent what’s being said in a meaningful way. Conversely, speedy typing lets us “drone out” and record everything, as if simply taking dictation.

Execute

Procrastination is a vile, seductive monster. While beneficial procrastination is possible, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Stop procrastinating and take time to do what must be done and simply do it. I start each day with my three MITs, or Most Important Tasks. When they’re complete, everything else I tackle that day is a bonus.

Tidy up along the way

I recently revealed here on Unclutterer that the tidy life doesn’t come easy for me. As such, I really dislike the idea of an entire Saturday spent cleaning. That’s why I’ve adopted the habit of tidying up along the way. It requires almost no additional effort and is immensely helpful.

Walking upstairs? Grab that book that goes on the upstairs bookshelf. Going outside? Put the recycling on the curb. All of these tiny tasks add almost no time to what you’re already doing, are super simple, and have a huge impact on the state of things in your home and office.

Big thanks to Leo at Zen Habits for inspiring this post. Three simple ideas — write it down, execute, and tidy up — can have a massive improvement on your surroundings and your day. If you make them a part of your routine, you’ll enjoy the results.