The organized teacher: three teachers offer advice

As we approach the new school year, organizing gets imperative, not just for families (books, clothes, schedules, and extracurricular activities) but also for teachers. When I was a child, I never once thought about all the work that goes into being ready for September and the start of school. Teachers had two months off, just like I did and they came back to class the same day I did.

But we all know that’s not at all true. As with any project, being well organized before starting can mean the difference between success and disaster and it’s the same for teachers starting a new school year.

How do teachers organize themselves? Is it any different from any other job?

I interviewed three different head teachers, one from Canada, one from the U.K. and one from the U.S.A. And no, being an organized teacher is no different than working in any other service industry.

From what these three teachers told me, there are three areas of organization that teachers need to consider:

  • Use of space – the classroom, paper storage, seating plans, and so on.
  • Personal preparedness – finding the right balance of planning but not over-planning, of learning new things but not obsessing, of using planners versus “winging it”.
  • The needs of students – who they are, what mix of personalities, genders, ages, and abilities they have, how the students did the previous year, and what needs to be reviewed or re-taught.

Use of space

Before starting the school year, our U.K. teacher suggests that together the teachers at a school should:

check and clear the school of any accrued mess to ensure the school feels tidy and organised before we open the door – if the school is tidy, the children are likely to keep it tidy.

The Canadian teacher reminds teachers to:

Throw things out! Teachers cling to paper and stuff! Purge! Keep a file on the computer and get rid of everything else.

Finally, the U.K. teacher also reminds us that daily maintenance keeps papers from overwhelming us:

Tidy each day! Tidy the classroom so it’s prepped for the next day. File away paper and keep your mind tidy and on the job at hand.

Personal preparedness

For all three teachers, planning is imperative, but they all also insist that over-planning is paralyzing and counter-productive.

Our U.S. teacher has this new school year routine:

I like to take a glimpse at the curriculum for the year and see the material that will be covered. Based on the level, I like to prepare a short review at the beginning of the school year, based on the previous material covered to help them ease into the new school year.

The Canadian does something similar:

Depending on what I’m teaching I generally plan out the course, first the big stuff, then break that down. If its a course I’ve taught before, I think about what worked well, what worked OK, and what didn’t work at all. I also like to to change things up (so I don’t get bored) If I have read/learned something new, I think of ways to incorporate it.

An the U.K. teacher suggests getting others involved:

My advice is to prioritise what needs to be done and park desirables until you have a clear plan. Use the human resources around you. People generally want to be involved and including them in the thinking and the journey will help in organisation. They might even come up with a better idea. Talking is the key!

When it comes to over-planning, the Canadian teacher believe that teachers should be careful not to waste too much time. “Sometimes things go off course so be prepared for that. Also lots of teachers waste time with detailed busy work, creating forms, binders, labels, etc. that make more work for no reason.”

The U.K. teachers reminds us as well that all too often “teachers spend too much time prepping, planning before they really know the class. It’s great to be prepared but there’s no point teaching children what they already know. Plan the first few lessons and then asses what’s needed.”

The Canadian teacher offers a good list of basic planning activities:

  • Familiarize yourself with the course outlines, expectations, and assessments.
  • Use a calendar for unit plans and due dates.
  • Colour code courses (it helps to visualize).
  • Make a note of important due dates like when report card marks are due (you would be surprised how many people are caught off guard).
  • Don’t take on too many things too fast. It’s really easy to get overwhelmed.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

The needs of students

Our U.S. teacher really focused on this area, as did the U.K. teacher. They both insist on getting to know the students and working with the rest of the school’s staff to set individual learning targets where possible before diving into too much organizing. The U.S. teacher will even “go over class lists and see what my classes look like: student numbers, total class size, and gender. This helps me for organizing the class and seating charts.”

She also talks about the need to establish rules the first day of class.

Do not assume they just know how to act. All teachers are different and have different levels of what they will tolerate so communication between teacher and students is important.

Finally, she makes what I believe is the most important point that teachers need to remember:

What is important is to establish is an atmosphere of mutual respect where students feel comfortable in expressing themselves in class amongst their peers and with the educator. Teachers need to remember we are not there to make friends; we are there to educate and help in the students’ growth in the content and be good citizens as well.

For those readers who are teachers, does this advice sound familiar? Is there anything you would add? And for those who aren’t teachers, how might the ideas offered by these teachers apply in your job?

Changing habits painlessly: a Bullet Journal experiment

A couple of weeks ago I stated my intention of using a Bullet Journal to improve not just my work productivity but to keep me on track with all the events I have throughout the year in my personal life.

Thank you to all of you who took the time to comment and to encourage me. The two most common suggestions were to customize and to take care not to get sucked into all the extras, and that advice has been duly noted and absorbed.

Fortunately I am a lazy person and my artistic interests lie in textiles not scrapbooking, so I won’t get drawn into forums or into making my journal pretty. My goal for using the Bullet Journal is to make sure that I use my time productively at work (so as to avoid chaos) and to not get into trouble at home by forgetting to plan special moments in our lives (something that happens quite often given my head-in-the-clouds personality). If at any point I find using a Bullet Journal takes more time than any of my other productivity systems in the past, out the window it will go.

As for customizing the system, I’ve already done that. According to the website, I was “supposed to” set up a Future Planning section where events and tasks for more than the current month and then a Monthly Calendar/To Do List at the beginning of each month.

This didn’t work for me. Given the nature of my job, and the way I tend to leave personal tasks to the last minute, I need to have the Monthly Calendars/To Do Lists laid out from the start. The Future Planning section will likely get ignored or will be used to put general topics only. And maybe next year it will disappear altogether. Time and use will tell.

I can see the benefit of using a Bullet Journal already, and I haven’t even started using the day-to-day lists (I’m waiting until after my vacation to get started on those). As I’ve repeatedly said, I’m horrible at remembering to plan for anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and so on. It’s like they suddenly jump out at me out of nowhere, like October 8th (our wedding anniversary) happens at some random point in the year and I never know exactly when it will show up.

By just setting up the Monthly Calendars and giving myself a full page beside each calendar for the To Do Lists, I’ve already started to think about special events that are going to happen between now and next August and have even started planning them.

For example, in 2018 the Eurovision Song Contest will be happening in Lisbon (and will likely never be so close or so affordable in many years again). This is a very popular event and will not just sell out quickly, but Lisbon itself will fill up and soon there will be no place to stay. Taking past habits into account, my normal mode of acting on this desire to go would be to wait until April 2018 to start organizing everything, or to wait until my husband brought up the topic. However, by marking the date in the Monthly Calendar and in the Future Planning section of the journal, I’ve made myself doubly aware of the need to plan. May 2018 is not really that far away. I added a note in the November section of the Future Planning to say that we need to start organizing the trip by then or it’s not going to happen.

That’s one habit changed, without any fuss or struggle. Yay me!

I can’t wait to see how else using the Bullet Journal will bring about changes in habits and productivity.

For those of you who do use Bullet Journals, how has the system changed things for you?

Post-vacation planning

Returning from holidays is always stressful, isn’t it?

Catching up with what you’ve missed, dealing with the dozens (or hundreds!) of emails, getting back into the rhythm of a routine, expectations from bosses and coworkers, the need to deal with employees who’ve gotten used to you not being around.

Sound familiar?

It almost makes you not want to go away on vacation.

It doesn’t have to be like that, however.

There’s a trick to getting ready for vacation that most of us miss. In planning our absence, we look at that last day before holidays as our objective: get everything organized so that people can cope without when we are gone. When we reach that day, we let out a big sigh and switch into relaxation mode blocking out the horrid reality of that eventual return to the office.

What if we change our focus a bit? Instead of focusing on the last day before our holidays, we should look at the first week we get back.

Take the last few days before you go away to get everything organized for your return. Consider how you are going to handle each of the following items:

  • How much time will you need to set aside each day to catch up on email and other communications? Block out that time now.
  • Who will you need to meet with to find out what has moved forward (or not)? Schedule those meetings before you leave.
  • What routines do you need to get back into? Slide into them slowly, adding one routine a day (gym, preparing lunches, etc…). If you have the chance, how about reintroducing them a few days before you start up at work again?

This year, I didn’t quite get everything planned before my last day (last Monday), so I took a few hours (rather randomly) in my first couple of days free to tie up a few loose ends and to better plan my return. Yes, it ate into my holiday a bit, but I’d much rather lose a few hours at the beginning of my time off so that I can thoroughly enjoy the rest of it and not return to work to chaos and stress.

Vacations are to relax and recharge. By planning your return, you can preserve all the tranquility you’ve created for yourself (in fact I think vacation planners should come with a post-vacation planning section). As an added bonus, by thinking beyond your last day and focusing on your first week back, you don’t need to worry about anything while you are gone. You can truly go on holiday, disconnecting from everything at work, even forgetting altogether that it exists.

Bullet Journals: an experiment in productivity

As I head into my vacations, I’m getting myself organized for the new year and for me, that starts in September. I would like to find ways to avoid both the organized disorganization and crisis-inspired chaos that always kills my best intentions to stay on top of my daily tasks and move my various pet projects forward.

Recently, a reader asked about bullet journals, so I investigated the Bullet Journal website created by the digital product designer Ryder Carroll. After poking around, I decided that I’m going to give this system a try. It’s going to be a challenge for me because there seems to be lots of parts to it and various stages. However, I’m going to go in with a good attitude.

First off, I will set myself up on the system before I go away on holiday so that I know exactly what I need to do the day I get back in order to hit the ground running.

My first task is to choose myself a notebook. At work, we have spiral-bound notebooks that have been branded with the company’s image, but I don’t think I will use one of those. The Bullet Journal website also sells their own book, but it’s a bit too expensive for me. Instead, I think I will go for my favorite writing notebook, the Moleskine Journal. It’s a good size, opens flat on the desktop well, and is about the same size as my iPad so can go into the iPad’s slipcover for easy transport.

While it might take me a while to get used to the various ways bullet points are expressed through rapid logging (there seem to be so many!), I rather like the idea of putting an ever-growing index at the beginning of the journal. Always in the past, I’ve made to-do lists and then once I’ve crossed off or migrated the task, I’ve forgotten about it, making it a challenge to remember the repetitive tasks that I do every year, every month, or even every week. By having an index that I can refer to at a glance, I’ll be able to remind myself of what sorts of things I need to be thinking about.

(On a side note, it has suddenly occurred to me that I should probably include personal topics in this journal as I’m notorious for forgetting things and thus leave organizing family events to the last minute, or not at all.)

I also like the next section of a monthly calendar with events to record (before and after) as well as a page for tasks in the month. This section will be extremely useful next July when I am organizing the 2018-2019 year. It does, however, take up a lot of space in the notebook, making me wonder if perhaps I’ve chosen a book with not enough pages.

Then again, when reading about the daily task lists, I won’t be using a full page each day. So as to not waste paper, each day’s list is created the night before, meaning I won’t need over three hundred pages to cover the whole year.

The notebook is now set up and ready to use. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I fear that it’s going to take some dedication to stick to the system, but in having organized the notebook, I can already see how it is going to help me. And most surprisingly, I believe it’s going to be more helpful in my personal life than at work.

I’ll let you all know how it goes. Have any of you had a good or bad experience using the Bullet Journal system?

Is it possible to plan for disorganization?

At work we are busy organizing the new year, which for us starts in September. Years ago, we waited until after holidays in August to start planning and organizing, but that left us with only three weeks before we had to launch.

Then slowly, we’ve been convincing clients to make their reservations earlier, first in July, then June and now we start in May. And it’s been incredibly successful! Before, clients saw as something they would fit into their schedule once everything else was organized. Now, we are a priority and if they haven’t booked by June, they reply with apologies. By extending the amount of time dedicated to the task of bookings, we removed the chaos and created calm and orderliness.

There are some things, however, that are impossible to organize early. For example, exact staff schedules. Each year until about a week before the launch mid-September, I cannot confirm anything for staff. They know how many hours they are going to have and we know when they cannot work. As much as I have tried over the past few years to pin staff schedules down in July, I always get back from holidays at the end of August and I have to make at least three changes per staff member. These changes invariably cause a lot of friction, whereas staff are quite willing to accept not knowing until the last minute, so I put up with the uncertainty.

Another thing we cannot organize too far in advance is product ordering. We don’t like to have extra stock because in the end it’s throwing money away on our part, but until we know exactly how many clients we have for the annual launch, we cannot place the orders. This causes chaos and some clients don’t have the materials they need right at the start, but knowing that this chaos will happen, we are able to plan with it in mind and have backup plans ready. Plus, we have discovered that if everything else under our control is well organized and executed, these inevitable chaotic moments don’t have a domino effect.

The Huffington Post has a great article explaining the concept of organized chaos and it’s well worth the read. The hotel reservation site Booking.com has turned organized chaos into a positive force that actually propels the business forward. Not surprisingly, one of the business experts of the millennium, Jim Collins, has a whole book, Great by Choice, devoted to thriving despite (or because of?) chaos.

Can you think of examples of organized chaos in your life? How do you keep it from devolving into chaos pure and simple? Or how do you turn it to your advantage?

How good are you at letting others help you?

I’m not. Not at all, in fact. Whenever someone offers to help me with anything, my immediate reaction is, “No, I can do it!” As if I were a five year old in front of an adult who questions my ability to do something.

It’s a terrible affliction this need to be so independent. And to be quite honest, it’s rather selfish on my part, too.

In an article in Psychology Today, the author talks about how letting others help you is a gift you give them. Most of us feel the desire to help whenever loved ones need it and helping them makes us feel better.

Just last night a friend was saying how her vacation plans fell through because of a mix-up with the online vacation reseller. We automatically offered our place in La Rioja – at least they would be able to get away from home for a week and they both love wine and sun. While it’s not the 5-star hotel they had hoped for, at least it’s a change of pace and scenery.

She said she couldn’t possibly and I countered with, “If the roles were reversed, would you offer us your place?” When she said, “Of course!” half-offended that I would imply otherwise, she realized how incongruent she was being and added, “Fine, I’ll think about it.”

When it comes to clutter, disorganization, or a lack to time deal with all of your responsibilities, can you ask for help, or are you like my friend who is horrified at imposing on others?

If you are like my friend (and to be honest, like me) and don’t like asking for help, these five tips from the “Savvy Psychologist” Ellen Hendrikson, PhD, may just help you:

  1. I don’t want to be a burden. As I’ve said already, people love to help. To get over this feeling, try asking for something small and very specific. Ask your best friend over and say, “Can you help me go through my closet? I want to get rid of some clothes, and I need an objective eye.” (Offering wine while you do it might help soothe your feelings of imposing.)
  2. I can’t admit that I need help. There’s nothing wrong with needing help. Being a human being means being part of a community, and in communities, people help each other. Try depersonalizing the problem. Instead of saying, “I can’t get the bathroom cabinets under control.” say, “The bathroom cabinets are about to explode (and it has nothing to do with me as a person; it’s external to who I am).”
  3. I don’t want to feel indebted. Helping isn’t a barter system. People don’t help in order to be able to call in the favour later (at least people with a healthy understanding of relationships don’t). Try feeling gratitude. Say, “Thank you, I really appreciate this.” No need to offer reciprocal help in that moment. No one is going to present you with a bill (unless you’ve hired yourself a Professional Organizer, of course).
  4. I can’t show my weakness. This is my issue. I’m independent. I can do it! I don’t need anyone! Whenever I find myself acting like this I give myself a good shake and say, “Oh, please, you’re not a toddler and you’re not some macho alpha who always has to be strong. No one is always strong.” Or, you can take this as an opportunity to learn something new, especially if you consult with an expert (again, perhaps a Professional Organizer).
  5. I might get rejected. People have their own situations to deal with and this might not be the right moment for them to help you. Don’t take it as rejection of you or your problems. Thank them anyway and find someone else to ask. Not everyone is going to be too busy to help. And if they are, as I’ve repeated several times now, you can always turn to professionals.

If you have trouble asking for help, which one (or ones) of these five reactions do you feel when considering asking for help? Do you think the tips are good ones for getting over each reaction? Have others worked for you?

And if you want a book to help you ask for help, why not check out Kickstarter-star Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking?

What makes you switch your ways?

For a business course I’ve been taking on change management, I’ve recently read the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It was published back in 2010 and Erin talks about it briefly in relation to a video interview with one of the authors.

Although the book is seven years old, its content is 100% current and presented me with a whole new way of creating change — not just at work but also in my life in general.

The Heath brothers tell us to forget about the reward-punishment dichotomy of the carrot-stick approach to change.

For real lasting change to occur, it needs to be appealing on three levels:

  • It needs to make sense.
  • It needs to resonate emotionally.
  • And it needs to be clearly articulated and have easy-to-implement steps.

They talk about these three points using the analogy of trying to ride an elephant. Logic (the Rider) can only go so far in directing the change. Emotion (the Elephant) is a much stronger element and can’t be forced to go where it doesn’t want to. And finally, if the path isn’t easy, neither the Rider nor the Elephant are going to want to make the change in direction.

As I said, the book opened my eyes to a new way of managing and encouraging change, but as with all methods, you need to take into account your audience. In a work situation, I didn’t do that and had to twist and turn to avoid a staffing disaster.

I’ve been trying to convince staff to adopt a new program, and was facing resistance. After reading Switch, I realized I was neither appealing to the Elephant nor making the path easy. So, armed with a hugely motivating presentation, I held a staff meeting where I was going to do a bang-up job of getting staff excited about the program before diving into the details of how we could all work together to make the transition easier and better for everyone.

Unfortunately, one staff member hates emotional appeals — I mean, despises them! He sees red whenever anything “motivational” floats before his eyes. From the first slide in the presentation, he turned confrontational and spent the rest of the hour-long meeting arguing against something that logically he and I have agreed upon as necessary and practical.

The next day, he and I spoke and we agreed that in the future, any time that I plan on motivating staff, he will be excused from the meeting and I will send him an email logically extolling the virtues of whatever change I am proposing to the rest of the staff.

Although it was an intensely frustrating hour, I learned a great deal from the confrontation, the main point of which is that when you are discussing change with anyone, you need to know what will best appeal to them.

If you want to change teenage behaviour at home, for example, neither logical nor emotional appeals will likely work very well. You need to make the change easier than not changing at all.

No matter your approach, however, if you are looking to make any sort of change in your personal or work life, I highly recommend reading Switch before embarking on the journey.

The calming power of lists

“Hold on, I’ve got to make a list.”

I’ve said this so many times — at the beginning of a project when I know a lot is about to come at me, when I need to go shopping, or when I’m about to tackle some errands for the day. If I have to communicate with a group of people, I make a list so I don’t leave anyone out.

Often, I’ll find a pen and a paper when I’m feeling overwhelmed and want to get everything out of my head. The simple act of writing down what needs to be done, when, and by whom, gives me a sense of being on top of things, even when the resulting list is ridiculously long. I feel a sense of relief, which can be explained by science.

Recently, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind, shared his insights with the podcast, Note To Self. He said, among other things:

“I think this is really important, that you write down all the things that you have to do, clear it out of your head so that you’re not using neuro resources with that little voice reminding you to pick up milk on the way home and to check to see if you paid the utility bill and that you have to call back Aunt Tilly because she left a voicemail and she’s going to worry and all this chatter – get it out of your head, write it down, then prioritize things.”

This notion mirrors something that author and productivity expert David Allen has said for years (I’ll paraphrase here), “The mind is not for storage. It’s for problem solving.” When you try to force it to do the former, you create dissonance and tension.

I prefer to outsource the task of remembering of what needs to be done to lists. Long-time readers know that I’ve got a pen and a notebook in my back pocket at all times. What’s inside my notebook? Lists. When I need to refer to what’s next, I just look at the notebook. My mind is free to do the work, not remember what work needs to be done.

It seems there are two types of people in the world: listers and non-listers. Unless you’ve got a mind like a steel trap, I don’t know how you do it. I’ll be a lister forever. Long live lists!

Are you able to disconnect?

Here in Spain, today is Labor Day. At this particular moment, instead of being at my desk, I’m in our apartment in La Rioja, Spain’s wine country, recovering from having eaten too much yesterday at a home-style restaurant that keeps serving food until you’re ready to explode — and then they bring out dessert.

But forget about my bout of over-eating; the thing to focus on here is the fact that I’m in the process of completely disconnecting from work and having a bunch of laughs with friends.

Sometimes that disconnection is difficult for me. I love my job and often find myself thinking about it outside of work hours — in the shower, while falling asleep, while watching a movie, when I’m out for dinner. And when I’m not working, I am thinking about articles for Unclutterer, or thinking about how I could squeeze more out of each day.

Shep Hyken, in an article in Forbes, says that working outside working hours is normal, especially the higher up you go. However, he also believes that everyone has the right to disconnect from work and even quotes the cheesy line: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

With smartphones and constant connectivity, it’s often hard to leave work at work, or any other passion, for that matter. So what can we do to truly disconnect from the need to be productive?

The Huffington Post offers several ways of organizing disconnection time:

  • Make time off a priority
  • Delegate tasks
  • Meditate mindfully
  • Use your smartphone to remind you to disconnect more
  • Write about your stress in order to release it

And SmartChic goes even further with ten disconnection ideas:

  • Prepare your next day before leaving work
  • Set limits and stick to them
  • Derail work thoughts when you are outside of work with fun distractions
  • Relax with a hot shower when getting home from work
  • Exercise
  • Get hobbies that are not productivity-related
  • Have non-work friends
  • Spend time with (chosen) family
  • Do something creative
  • Turn off electronics

These are all really good ideas, but to be honest, I’m exhausted just reading about all the ways to disconnect.

Let me give you my foolproof way of disconnecting. I learned how to do it when I went through a health crisis decades ago and was forced to do nothing.

Ready?

  1. Sit on the sofa or in a comfy chair
  2. Focus on a blank patch of the wall or the ceiling
  3. Let your mind wander with no judgement about any thoughts that may occur to you

And that’s it. No rules, no disconnection productivity tips, no processes to learn. Disconnecting is about disconnecting. Remember, as En Vogue sings, “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.

Avoiding “sorry for the late response” emails

If I didn’t email you back it means I set your note aside to consider more carefully later, then didn’t. — Michael Green, on Twitter

I read this tweet and smiled, because I’ve done the same thing, as have so many others. Marissa Miller once tweeted, “adulthood is emailing ‘sorry for the delayed response!’ back and forth until one of you dies” and her tweet got shared 27,000 times, so this obviously resonates with a lot of people.

Susanna Wolff recently wrote a humor column in The New Yorker entitled Sorry For the Delayed Response that is full of imagined way-too-late email responses, starting with the following one:

Sorry for the delayed response. I opened your e-mail on my phone while my date was in the bathroom, but then I saw that it required more than a “yes” or “no” reply, decided that was too much work, marked it as unread, and then forgot about it entirely until just now.

So how can we avoid the delayed response syndrome?

Suggestions for email senders

In an article entitled Let’s All Stop Apologizing for the Delayed Response in Our Emails, Melissa Dahl wrote about what she saw as the “real problem with replying to email”:

When … are you supposed to reply? Sometimes people make this clear, explicitly noting that they need an answer by the end of the day, or week, or whatever. But this doesn’t happen as often as it should.

So try helping your email recipients by making it clear just how urgently you need a reply: right now, tomorrow, by a specific future date, etc. You can also adopt the practice that Tsh Oxenreider describes on her blog, The Art of Simple: her friend Sarah ends some emails with “No need to reply!” Not every email requires a response, so it helps to make it explicit when no response is expected.

Also, make it easy for your recipients to see exactly what response is needed. A few days ago I got an email from my brother with five numbered questions, and it was extremely easy to respond quickly — and I knew he needed a quick response because he told me that. Each question was brief, including exactly the information I needed in order to answer. Did I want to go to either of two choral performances (with dates and location provided)? How did I feel about a potential family reunion at a specific place on a specific date? If only all my emails were that easy to handle!

Suggestions for email receivers

If it’s not clear when a response is needed, you can write back and ask. This will help you respond appropriately, and it might also train your correspondents to include this information in the future.

As we’ve discussed before on Unclutterer, you can create your reply faster by using a text expansion tool to handle frequently used text.

But the advice I read that I personally found the most meaningful came from Melissa Febos, writing in the Catapult online magazine and addressing her fellow writers: “Stop trying to get an A+ at anything but writing your best work.” The specific thing you’re trying to get an A+ in may be almost anything, but it probably isn’t email replies. Yes, work emails require professionalism and clarity. But I know I’ve sometimes spent way longer on an email response than was necessary. The latent perfectionist in me likes those A+’s, but I know that my time can often be spent more wisely.

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.