When plans go awry

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. As much as you try to be a reliable, organized person and meet your commitments, sometimes life interferes. Would it help to know that members of Congress face the same challenges that you do?

Derek Willis and Cecilia Reyes recently published an article on the ProPublica website entitled “The Dog Ate My Vote: How Congress Explains Its Absences.” Members of the U.S. House of Representatives can file explanations for missed votes (as well as noting how they would have voted, had they been present). As you read their explanations, I’m sure some of them will sound familiar.

Travel delays, sometimes because of weather, are a common theme. For example, Rep. Jackie Speier wrote, “I was unfortunately unable to cast votes on Monday, July 8, 2013 due to inclement weather that prevented me from making it to Washington, DC.”

And sometimes our representatives experience the same travel frustrations we all do. As Rep. Rep. Nick J. Rahall II wrote in October 2011:

I regret that I was prevented from casting votes during last Monday night’s session due to repeated delays of a flight from Charleston, West Virginia, to Washington.

The flight, originally scheduled to depart at 4:50 p.m., did not leave Charleston until after 9 p.m., more than four hours late. In that time, the airline offered numerous excuses — maintenance, delayed flights that had backed up the system. Numerous alternative departure times were put forward and then retracted. Within one four-minute span, the airline emailed four different departure and arrival times. At moments, the arrival/departure information was so confused that the airplane would have had to violate the laws of physics in order to abide by the airline schedule. This is an all too often occurrence and often maintenance delay excuses are used to cover crew issues and/or other problems.

Needless to say, all passengers were inconvenienced and the airline’s explanations were wholly unsatisfactory. This flight delay prevented me from carrying out my Constitutional duty to represent the people of southern West Virginia.

Sometimes there are medical issues or family emergencies. As Rep. Ruben Hinojosa explained in Feb. 2011, “I regret that I had to return to my district because of the illness and subsequent death of my sister.”

Competing priorities can also cause someone to miss an important event. (At least in these situations you sometimes know about the conflict in advance and can warn people about your absence.) As Rep. Billy Long wrote: “Friday, May 15, 2015 I was away from the Capitol to attend my daughter’s graduation from the University of Missouri Medical School. Due to this event, I was unable to vote on any legislative measures on this date.”

And sometimes we just mess up. I love this honest explanation from Rep. Jeff Landy in April 2011: “I stepped outside to discuss issues with a constituent group and completely lost track of the time.”

As Willis and Reyes wrote, “Voting is one of the most important duties of a lawmaker, and most miss very few votes.” Assuming you are also a person who meets your key commitments the vast majority of the time, just realize that sometimes — no matter how organized you are — things will go wrong. However, there are steps you can take to these situations to a minimum, and make it easier to recover when they do happen.

Unexpected flight delays can ruin your schedule, but you can try to minimize the potential for problems by not booking super-tight connecting flights, and looking at airline data about which flights tend to get delayed when making your choices.

If you regularly lose track of time, using timers and alarms can help. If you’re often on the go and don’t have a smart phone with an alarm function, a watch with a timer might help.

Because you never know when an unavoidable delay might occur, it helps to have contact information (phone numbers, email, etc.) for anyone you might need to inform of any delays. And let them know as soon as you can, even if your revised plans are not yet firm, so they can adjust accordingly. Similarly, have everything you need to reschedule flights and hotel reservations: the confirmation numbers for your original reservations, and the phone numbers, websites, and apps you need to revise those plans.

And when making plans, follow the advice of experienced project managers and include some contingency time in those plans — time added to the schedule to allow for the unknown issues that almost always occur. A schedule that assumes everything will go perfectly is often unrealistic and leads to last-minute scrambling when things go wrong.

Organizing your thoughts

As you may have guessed, the first step for organizing your thoughts is writing them down. (Especially thoughts related to things you need to do.) It’s not hyperbole to say that writing things down can change your life. It helps clear your mind for important work, offers a record of the past, and can foster a sense of achievement. But even beyond that, having things written down, even when the resulting list is huge, can help you feel like you’re on top of things. But simply making a list isn’t all you need.

For optimal thought organization, consider taking these additional steps. First, and this is the most critical piece in the process, perform a good core dump. Get everything — and I mean everything — out of your mind. When everything is out of your mind, it can stop pestering you about what needs to be done. Your mind is more of a problem solver than a filing cabinet.

Next, find the tool that’s going to work for you for capturing those tasks/ideas and working from them. Notebook? (A Moleskine, a Little List, an Emergent Task Planner) An app? (Evernote, ToDoist, Wunderlist) Desktop software? (OmniFocus, Fantastical, Toodledo) It really doesn’t matter. Just identify the tool that is best for you (a.k.a. that you will actually use over the longterm). One that helps you to prioritize your work and integrates (even manually) with your calendar are also good ideas.

Finally, identify the best time of the day to do the work or tasks you need to accomplish so they stop weighing on you. For years, I was the type who liked to work at night. When the kids were in bed, I could retreat to my home office and work for a few hours. Today, that’s not the case. I find that I like being with my family in the evening and then prepping for the next day in other ways, like making sure backpacks are full, my outfit is ready for the next day, lunches are made, and so on. Instead, I’ve begun doing thoughtful work in the morning, before the rest of the house wakes up and starts their day. The point is: notice what works for you and stick with it.

If you’re looking for ideas for ways to do your core dump, my favorite way is to brainstorm with a mind map. It’s a great way to have a powerful brainstorming session without resulting in a mess that must be sorted before you can get on with the rest of your work.

Now, take the time to find the time and tools that are most amenable for you and enjoy productive thought organization.

Understanding procrastination

Do you tend to procrastinate? I certainly do, at times. But I just read a couple articles about procrastination (thanks to Julie Bestry and Debra Baida, who shared them on Twitter), which provided some valuable insights into how procrastination works and what this means for time management.

Why we procrastinate: time inconsistency

On his personal website, James Clear wrote about time inconsistency: “the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.”

As Clear went on to explain:

When you make plans for yourself — like setting a goal to lose weight or write a book or learn a language — you are actually making plans for your future self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future and when you think about the future it is easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits.

When the time comes to make a decision, however, you are no longer making a choice for your future self. Now you are in the moment and your brain is thinking about the present self. And researchers have discovered that the present self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.

In this article and another one, Clear provides useful strategies for fighting the effects of time inconsistency and overcoming procrastination. Personally, I realized that when I’ve been most successful in fighting procrastination, I’ve actually said to myself, “Future Me is going to be so glad I did this!” And that’s one of the strategies: vividly visualizing the benefits your future self will enjoy.

One tiny example: I ran errands on a lovely Monday, even when I was feeling lazy and could have put them off for a day, because I knew Future Me would be very glad to not have to leave the house in the forecasted downpour the following Tuesday.

Why procrastination can sometimes be useful

Adam Grant’s recent article in The New York Times was provocatively titled “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate.” Grant explained that he tends toward pre-crastination: “the urge to start a task immediately and finish it as soon as possible.”

But what he came to realize is that for creative tasks (preparing a speech, writing a term paper, etc.) a certain amount of procrastination can be useful. Beginning the project but not rushing to complete it gave him a better result than finishing as quickly as he could. As he explained:

Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional. … When you procrastinate, you’re more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns.

But even for creative efforts, there can be too much procrastination. Those who wait until the last minute to begin a project have to “rush to implement the easiest idea instead of working out a novel one.”

So for creative tasks, setting a schedule that allows for some procrastination time may be wise. I know I can write a blog post quickly, but my writing often benefits from taking extra time to ponder the subject. You may well have similar projects that could use that extra time, too.

Eat that frog later?

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” — Mark Twain

The “frog” in the Mark Twain quote above has been adopted by the business community and productivity advocates to represent the one task or activity you’re least looking forward to completing over the course of your day. The idea being that once the unappealing task is done, the rest of the day is a breeze in comparison.

It’s an interesting idea for sure. But let’s consider a minor alteration: is there a benefit to eating the frog second, or even third?

In May 2011, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled, “The Power of Small Wins.” In it, author Teresa Amabile describes something called The Progress Principle:

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”

Amabile and her colleagues conducted a study in which they asked people to record details of a “best day” and “worst day” at work, in terms of motivation. The results were interesting. The days labeled as a “best day” were those during which progress was made on a project:

“If a person is motivated and happy at the end of the workday, it’s a good bet that he or she made some progress. If the person drags out of the office disengaged and joyless, a setback is most likely to blame.”

I’ve noticed this tendency in myself. For that reason, I like to set myself up for early wins with one or two quickie successes early in the morning.

For example, if know I have to sit down at the computer and write a proposal, I might clear a few emails from my inbox first, tackle another small to-do item (like returning an object to a coworker), re-read an article related to my proposal, and then begin writing.

I find that if I clear a few easy items off of my “to-do” list, I experience some of the benefits described in the Progress Principle above, and I can use that momentum to tackle the big project of the day — the frog. A couple little successes can go a long way.

Build a visual to-do list in Evernote

We’ve written about Evernote several times on Unclutterer, and for good reason — it’s a fantastic service. I use it as my external brain, having it “remember” things for me, same as a scratch pad, text editor, or journal.

Many people, myself included, use Evernote as a to-do manager. I combine the to-do item with the photo notes feature, and I’ve got a visual to-do list.

When you create a new note in Evernote, you’ve got five options: Text, Photo, Reminder, List, and Audio snippet. In the instance of a visual to-do list, create a Photo. Using the Evernote app on your smartphone, simply take a photo of that long-lingering project: the baseboard that needs replacing, the drywall that could use a patch, the past-its-prime laundry basket that needs to be put out to pasture. Now you have an image representing the task that needs to be completed. But you’re not done yet.

You can add text to any note, so be liberal with the notes. “Buy two-by-four to replace this baseboard” or “Get a laundry basket while at the mall” will do nicely. Take it a step further by adding tags. Try tags like “high priority” or “low priority” and then sort when it comes time to do things. Or, tag by context with terms like “errands” or “home.” Perhaps you’ll sort by tasks for work and those for your personal life.

Now, a visual list like this won’t work for everyone, but often times quickly glancing at an image will quickly jog your memory. Also, you don’t always have time to stop and write things down. Snapping a quick reference photo can fix that problem. Additionally, Evernote is so ubiquitous that your list can be instantly synced to almost any device.

Up your keyboard shortcut game with TextExpander

A few years ago on Unclutterer, we made a couple suggestions for increasing your computing productivity with keyboard shortcuts. I’m a huge fan of this practice and suggest everyone spend less time with the mouse and more time learning the keyboard-based equivalents of the tasks you perform most often. But, if you’re really ready to ramp up your keyboard wizardry, look no further than a program called TextExpander ($49.95).

TextExpander is a Mac utility that lets you replace one string of text with another. And do not fret, Windows users, I have not left you users out in the cold. PhraseExpress (starting at $49.95) is fully compatible with TextExpander, and syncs shortcuts between the two.

Also, I shouldn’t have to state this outright, but I’m going to: I pay for this utility myself, it’s what I use, and I’m not being compensated in anyway to write this product recommendation. Phew, now that’s out of the way …

Why would you want to use a utility like TextExpander? The short answer is that it saves you a lot of typing. Let’s say you own a small business and must produce a boilerplate email to customers who write requesting certain information. The response is just three short paragraphs long, but the time spent writing it over and over adds up. TextExpander lets you define a brief string of text, say “.response”. We’ll call that the trigger snippet. When you type .response, it’s immediately replaced with the three-paragraph email.

Or, let’s say you’re a developer who must use the same bits of code over and over. You can create a trigger snippet that’s replaced with the code in question, saving you time and reducing the likelihood of a typing error. As you use TextEpander you begin to realize its magic simplicity.

Today, I use TextExpander to:

  • Replace commonly misspelled words
  • Replace the surnames I often get wrong
  • Add a lengthy URL when I need to
  • Reduce the potential for human error when pasting complex code

TextExpander offers advanced features that make it even more useful. For example, you can opt to have it place your cursor at any point in the replacement text, which is great for those times when just one part will change. You can also turn it on or off in specific programs, so you don’t have to use it.

Build a time buffer into your schedule

Under-scheduling your day — even by just 30 minutes — can be an effective method for keeping to your schedule all day.

I’ve been working from home, in one capacity or another, since 2009. Six years’ experience has allowed me to come up with many great organizational and productivity tricks, and one of the most effective strategies is essentially accounting for the unpredictable.

I’m a big fan of routine and scheduling. I know when I’m going to work on a given project or area of focus. Before I go to bed at night, I review what must be done the next day. That’s a great way to eliminate the dreaded “what should I work on first/now?” questions. By the time you sit at your desk, you should be ready to go.

But that’s not my favorite trick. I schedule nothing — not a single task — for the last hour of the day. This “time buffer” is handy in so many ways. A last-second appointment come up? No problem. Kids need to be picked up from school? Got it. Even if nothing comes up, you’ve now got to time to process email, work up your schedule for tomorrow, maybe even relax a bit and decompress for the day.

It’s easy to schedule every minute of the day, and even over-schedule. Try building in a time buffer each day for a week to see if it’s beneficial to your effectiveness and productivity. I suspect it will be.

A clean-slate office

Having recently started a new job, I’ve come into a real treat: a brand new workspace. A complete blank slate. It’s a rarity and a treat.

My first thought, of course, was to populate it with the tech and tools that I’ll need to get my work done. I started making a list when it dawned on me to stop, throw the list away and take an altogether different approach. Let experience dictate what I add. It’s been quite an eye-opening experience.

I started with the bare minimum: pens, some index cards, and a calendar. Big items like a computer and printer were supplied by my employer. Everything else I’ve added only when I’ve needed something.

First, I realized I needed my smartphone and a charging cable for it. Rather than schlep a charging cable back and forth every day between my home and office, I bought a cable to live at my desk. Next, once I knew for certain that wearing headphones was acceptable when working, I added a set of earbuds go my supplies. Nothing says, “Can’t talk, I’m working,” like a pair of headphones. Plus, I’m more productive and happy when listening to music.

(More on keeping wired earbuds under control.)

Next, I added software I wanted as I needed it. Unfortunately, there are strict policies on getting software approved for a corporate computer, so this process wasn’t instantaneous. Eventually, I received approval to to get all of the software I depend on, and they’re all browser-based cloud services. Namely:

Not only can I get to work with my preferred tools, all of my documents, preferences, etc. are in place.

It’s nice to start new and not have any software or equipment cluttering up my work. Instead of assuming I’ll need something, waiting until I actually need it has kept things to an appreciated minimum.

Of course, you don’t have to accept a new job to approach your office or workspace with a clean slate. Take a week or two and notice what you use and what you don’t. Write down what you need but don’t have, and finally observe what you have but never use. Then make adjustments. You just might end up with a tidier, more efficient and more productive work space.

Defining technology and increasing your productivity

Recently, my 10-year-old son reminded me that technology doesn’t have to be a collection of wires and software, but can be the simplest of devices and still wonderfully productive.

His teacher asked him to write about his favorite subject. He chose science, and broke his writing project into a few aspects of scientific study, including technology, which he defined as “a tool to help you do things better.”

“Well,” I thought, “that’s right.”

Years ago, when I worked as an IT director and had many computers — and computer users — it was quite the task to keep all my work and equipment all organized. It was around that time I discovered David Seah, a designer who often writes about his efforts to become more productive online. He makes lots of cool paper-based productivity tools, including the delightful Task Order Up sheets, which I used religiously. (And Erin loves the sticky version of his Emergent Task Planner, too.)

They were inspired by the order tickets you might see in a deli or restaurant where short-order cooks whip up pancakes, chowder, and slabs of meatloaf on a regular basis. Each sheet represents a single project, with fields for the project’s title and all of the actions that must be completed before the project can me marked as “done.”

There are also fields for marking down the amount of time you’ve spent on a given project, time spent on each action step, and the date. Best of all, they look like the tickets from a deli counter, so you can line them up at your desk and then pull then down as each “order” is completed. Dave even recommends using an order check rail for added authenticity.

Of course you can just use index cards if you like, but I believe that the tools we use can be useful, attractive AND fun. Technology really is any tool that helps you do things better.

Make printing less painful and more productive with Google Cloud Print

Years ago, when I worked as an IT Director/help desk for a residential school, the one thing I loathed to hear — more than server issues, backup recovery or Wi-Fi woes — was this simple, three-word sentence: “I can’t print.”

Computers continue to improve by leaps and bounds, while it feels as if printers are just as cumbersome and unreliable as ever.

At least one printing problems appears to have found a fairly simply solution. If you’ve ever had need to print out a document and mail it, now you can skip the mailing step and simply have the document printed at its destination. (The opposite is also true, if you’ve ever needed a document someone can have it printed on your printer.) This act of sharing is possible via Google Cloud Print. This is a solution that lets you connect to a printer via the web, instead of a USB cable or the local network in your home or office. Once you set up your account, you can easily give anyone you want — wherever they are — access to your printer. When it comes to documents that you need to have a physical copy in hand, this is a great and productive option.

My parents will fly to my house from Florida for a visit. Before leaving the house, they use Google Cloud Print to print their return flight boarding passes on the printer here at my house. They don’t have to send me an email, I don’t have to open the email, and I don’t have to print the document. It saves both of us time and improves our productivity.

Another case: You’ve left work and realize you forgot to print a contract for your boss to sign later that evening. No problem, just connect to the work printer from home and fire it off right then and there. You won’t have to drive back to work and your boss won’t be late to her next meeting.

My favorite time-saving advantage is that you can print directly from an iPhone, iPad, or Android device using an app. While we’re on the subject, Google Cloud Print doesn’t care what platform you’re using, so Mac and PC users can both enjoy the service. Earlier today, I was able to print files from my MacBook Pro, my iPhone, and my daughter’s Google Chromebook all to our little Epson via Cloud Print. No fussing with drivers, software, installer CDs, or any of that stuff.

Isn’t in nice when technology actually does make our lives easier and save us time?

While nice, Google Cloud Print doesn’t solve everything. Printers are still sub-par devices that eat time, paper, and money. However, consider this as one way to take the sting out of having to print. Now, if only I could remotely remove paper jams …

10 things you can do right now to be more organized

Here at Unclutterer we often focus on long-term solutions for clutter problems. But this week, I want to focus on the short term. The following are 10 things you can do within the next 10 minutes to help yourself be more organized.

  1. Lay out tomorrow’s outfit tonight. Last week, we wrote about what I think of as doing a favor for your future self. Unless you’re going the Steve Jobs route and wearing the same outfit every day, you probably spend a few minutes each morning staring at the dresser or closet in an early morning fog and the longer you stand there the more you run the risk of being late for work or school or wherever you need to go. Reclaim that time from your morning by doing it the night before. It’s a great feeling to pop out of bed and find your outfit ready to go.
  2. Update the calendar. Once a week I ensure that our family calendar is up-to-date. This is especially crucial now that the new school year is starting. It only takes a few minutes to ensure that every appointment that’s scheduled for the next seven days has been properly recorded. If you live with other people–kids, roommate, spouse, whomever–have everyone participate in this activity to be sure everything is included on the calendar.
  3. Plan the week’s menu. Years ago, I supervised a group home of students with autism and other developmental delays. Something that my staff and I had to do was prepare nightly meals for everyone. Every night we cooked for seven students and five teachers. That was when I learned to keep a weekly menu up on the refrigerator; a habit I continue today. It’s much nicer to see what I’ve planned to prepare, as opposed to wondering, “What can I make tonight?”
  4. Find a pen and some scrap paper. Prep a stack of index cards and a small collection of pens and you’ll be ready the next time you need to jot something down while on the phone, at your computer, or wherever ideas come to you. If note cards won’t work for you, get a small notebook and carry it with you in your pocket so you can capture ideas before putting them down in a more permanent way (like on a to-do list or calendar).
  5. Round up extra batteries. Instead of searching your home for wayward batteries whenever you need them, put together a package of each type — AA, AAA, and so on — in an obvious place. If you don’t have any extra batteries of a type you typically need, consider getting reusable ones and storing those.
  6. End the missing sock nightmare. There are four people in my house. For years, sorting socks was a nightmare. They all ended up in the same laundry basket, and we played Rock Paper Scissors to identify the poor soul who had to sort them. Today, everyone has a mesh laundry bag for socks. Put the socks in the bag, tie it up, and put the bag in the washer. Socks come out clean and more importantly, sorted.
  7. Employ a tray. Not long ago, we abandoned the key hooks we used for hang car keys. Keys then cluttered up the kitchen table until I put a small, unassuming tray right beside the door. Now that there is a key tray it’s where the keys land, without making a cluttered mess. Even a tray full of haphazard contents appears sorted and tidy simply by being a container.
  8. Tidy your work area. The dissonance of visual clutter is real and can adversely affect your work day. Take just 10 minutes to tidy a desk and you’ll feel better and maybe even be more productive.
  9. Label your cables. Raise your hand if you’ve played the “unplug this to find out what it’s connected to” game. It’s no fun. A simple set of cable labels can eliminate that nonsense.
  10. Take 10 minutes to just be. There’s so much going on each day: Work and maybe kids, home life and friends, the constant firehose of social media. Find 10 minutes in each day that you can use to walk in the yard, listen to quiet music, or simply sit and experience the moment. This might sound a little hippy dippy, but it’s a great practice to get into for keeping the rest of your day organized. An organized mind helps a great deal in having an organized life.

Certainly continue to work toward those far-reaching goals, but don’t overlook the power of 10 minutes in the meantime.

The power in 15 minutes

Uncluttering is a lifelong endeavor. Perfection is not the goal, especially in a working home, and time is often a rare commodity in a busy home. Recently, I’ve been working to see how much I can get done in a small amount of time, and how good I can feel about the results. I’ve found that 15 minutes is a perfect amount of time to be productive and not feeling overwhelmed by the time commitment.

I started this experiment by cleaning the closet for half an hour without pause. I went about this logically, as I wanted measurable results. I set a timer on my phone for 30 minutes and got to it.

It went well, but two things happened. First, my interest started to wane around the 20 minute mark. Other tasks — tidying the kitchen or the laundry room — took less than the 30 minutes I set aside, so I either ended early or started a second project that put me over my 30-minute limit.

Next, I dropped it down to 20-minute intervals with a smilier effect. Ultimately, I dropped down to 15 minutes, and it has been exactly what I needed.

I’ve stuck with this number for a few reasons. First, it’s quite easy to work for 15 minutes without getting distracted by something else. Second, I’ve been amazed at how many tasks only take about 15 minutes. I’ve been able to completely organize my desk reducing visual clutter, get laundry folded and put away, organize the kids’ stuff for the next day, and so on.

I also found that 15 minutes is perfect for doing one of my favorite things: a mind dump. I take a pen, a piece of paper, and the time to simply write down everything that’s on my mind — it is so liberating and productive. Even an overwhelming list of to-do items can seem manageable when you’ve got it written down. There’s a sense of being “on top of it” that comes with performing a mind dump, all in 15 minutes.

Find a timer and discover what length of time is good for your for completing most projects. You might find that 10 minutes works for you, or 20. The point is that when you say, “I’m going to work on this and only this for [x] minutes,” you’ll be surprised at what you can get done.