Creating a personal strategic plan

Setting goals, working on projects, and tackling action items are three things I do on a regular basis to keep my work and personal life afloat. They’re the backbone of what I refer to as the Daily Grind.

The Daily Grind doesn’t happen by accident, though. I’m not a person who sits around and lets things fall into her lap or wish for the perfect opportunity to open up to me. I try to have purpose to my actions and am proactive in my dealings. Because of my desire to live with purpose, guiding my Daily Grind is a personal Strategic Plan. Much like a Strategic Plan that guides a business, my plan guides who I want to be. It keeps me on track, helps me reach my goals, and keeps me from feeling like I’m in a rut or walking through life as a zombie.

Similar to how a business creates a Strategic Plan, I created a plan for myself. In the book How Organizations Work by Alan Brache, strategy is defined as “the framework of choices that determine the nature and direction of an organization.” If you replace the words “an organization” with “my life” you get a solid idea of a personal Strategic Plan.

Brache continues in his book to discuss how to create an effective Strategic Plan for a business. Building on his ideas, but with a bent toward the personal, I created the following process for how to create my plan and how you can create a plan, too.

Five steps to living with a personal Strategic Plan

  1. Collect data and analyze your current situation. What are your strengths? (The book Now, Discover Your Strengths can help you answer this question.) How do you process information? What in your life do you love? What activities in your life do you look forward to or wish you had more time to complete? What are the activities you loathe and want to get out of your life completely or reduce dramatically? What competes for your attention? What are your core beliefs and how does your life reflect those ideals? Do you like the things you say you like, or is habit guiding your behavior?
  2. Make the tough choices. How far into the future are you willing to work with this Strategy? (I recommend no more than three years.) Review the data you collected and analyzed in the first stage, and put into words your core beliefs that under no circumstance are you willing to break. State what obligations in your life you must fulfill. State your strengths and which of these should continually be highlighted in your life. What stands out the most in your life as being the positive force for your actions? More than anything else, what makes you happy?
  3. Communicate (draft) your personal Strategic Plan. Put into words the plan that will guide your Daily Grind. Write it in words that you understand and trigger memories of why and how you chose your plan. Your Strategic Plan isn’t a mission statement, it can fill more than one sentence of text. It probably won’t be a 20+ page document like many businesses create, but it should be at least a page or two containing the gist of your vision. Be realistic and let the document wholly reflect who you are and who you want to be. This is just for you, not anyone else, so let it speak to and for you.
  4. Work with your Strategic Plan as your guide. Make decisions about how you spend your time and all aspects of your Daily Grind under the guidance of your plan. Try your best to keep from straying outside the bounds of your Strategic Plan. Live with purpose.
  5. Monitor and maintain your Strategic Plan. Sometimes life throws us a wrench when we were looking for puppies and rainbows. Or, something even better than you ever imagined can happen. Update and monitor these changes and see if your Strategic Plan needs to be altered as a result. If no major change has taken place, evaluate your performance within your plan and check to see if you’re getting lazy and letting things slide. Maybe you realize that your plan wasn’t broad enough, or maybe it was too specific. It’s your plan, so work to keep it healthy.

Ideas and Suggestions

What you choose to put into your plan is a deeply personal choice and how your plan looks is as unique as your finger print. If you’re looking for ideas or suggestions to get you started, consider the following:

  • Your relationship with your children, spouse, parents, siblings, friends.
  • Your spiritual and philosophical beliefs, how you practice those beliefs, and how you incorporate them into your daily life.
  • Your career goals and how much energy and focus you choose to commit to these achievements.
  • Your time and how you choose to spend it.
  • Your health and your objectives regarding your health.

Your strategic plan shouldn’t be a list of goals about these topics, but rather the guiding philosophies behind those goals. For instance, if in your Daily Grind you have action items about losing five pounds, those action items might reflect your Strategic Plan: “I enjoy the time and active relationship I have with my growing children. Staying healthy and in good physical condition allows me to have energy for this time with my children and allows me to work when I’m at work. Good health also is one way that I can work to have more years with those I love. It is important to me that I make healthy choices with regard to nutrition and exercise.”

Do you have a Strategic Plan? Does it help to keep clutter — especially time and mental clutter — from getting out of control? If you haven’t written a personal Strategic Plan before, do you think this is a tool that can help you?

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Ask Unclutterer: Dealing with a prolific gift-giver

A reader who goes by the name of Overwhelmed wrote in with this dilemma.

I am newly married and my mother-in-law and I have a strained relationship. She tends to show her affection by buying things and she goes way overboard. If I tell her specifically not to buy me something, she will buy it anyway.

She buys new clothes for my husband every time she is at the store. (He has several plastic bins full of clothes he has never worn). We do not have space for a dining table because the entire dining room is full of boxes of stuff she bought for my husband that he doesn’t need/want.

My mother-in-law kept telling me that for Christmas she was going to buy me something from our wedding registry that hadn’t already been purchased. I told her it was unnecessary because we were inundated with stuff and had already purchased the extra items we needed. She asked me if I wanted a convection oven that I had listed on our registry. I specifically told her that I no longer wanted it because it would not work in our current apartment.

So, she surprised me by buying the convection oven as a Christmas gift. This item is huge and very expensive which makes me uncomfortable. We have no space for it at all in our apartment.

I want to be grateful for the gifts but I feel disrespected that she didn’t listen to me. What is the polite thing to do with this oven (and all the other gifts) and how can I get through to her to listen to me when I tell her no?

I’m sure Overwhelmed is not the only reader with this dilemma. There are probably many people out there looking at piles of Christmas or birthday gifts asking, “How can I get this to stop?”

Because this is your husband’s mother, the first person you need to have a conversation with is your husband. I mentioned your situation to Unclutterer writer Alex and he strongly recommended the book he reviewed, Crucial Conversations. You may want to read it before you speak with your husband or read it with your husband before you speak with your mother-in-law. Regardless of if or when you read the book, it is important that you and your husband agree on how and when to approach your mother-in-law with your decisions on what to do with the all of the gifts you have received to date, as well as what to do with any future gifts you do not want.

Many people give gifts because they love the recipients. For whatever reason, gift-giving may be the only way the giver knows how to express that love. In the eyes of the giver, asking him/her not to give gifts would be like asking them not to love you anymore — an almost impossible task for many mothers.

Your mother-in-law is facing an empty nest now that you have moved out and is probably trying her best to keep a connection to you and her son even if she is going about it in a way that makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps you could try and build a connection with her that doesn’t involve material possessions. You could have regular “Sunday Roast,” (a British tradition where extended family gathers together for a mid-day meal) or schedule an outing to a museum or theatre. There may be a leisure activity you might be interested in starting such as yoga or ceramics. You could ask your mother-in-law to join you. You might find that working together at community service/charity events works best for you. This would allow you to show that you appreciate her presence (as opposed to her presents).

After you have made your wishes about gifting known to your mother-in-law, you can start disposing of the things you no longer want. Your mother-in-law will likely ask about certain items and I know it may feel awkward at first, but, with loving kindness, reiterate the decisions you and your husband have made regarding gifts and reassure her that you appreciate and value her thought, effort, love, and generosity.

Note: If you have received an heirloom item and you’re not sure of its significance, ask your mother-in-law to provide a detailed history (written or verbal). It will help you decide if the item is worth keeping or passing along (possibly to another family member).

It’s your home and you can decide what stays and what goes even if it was a gift. Remember that the gift is not only about the recipient but also about the giver, so always show your gratitude then move on.

Thanks for your great question Overwhelmed. We hope that this post gives you the information you’re looking for and all the best of luck with your situation.

 

Do you have a question relating to organizing, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject as “Ask Unclutterer.”

The minimalist and the maximalist

When I lived alone, my minimalist tendencies could flourish. Each surface in the house was either bare or had one or two items on it. I regularly went through the house and pared down anything that had found its way onto a shelf or table without a conscious decision to put it there.

I lived this way because I am a naturally disorganized person. The more I have, the less organized I am, and the less I clean. Wiping the dust off a shelf that has two carefully placed items is much easier and faster than removing the ten knick-knacks, wiping them all down, and then placing them back where they are supposed to be.

The less I had also meant the less I bought. I didn’t need to buy anything because I had all I needed. When I travelled I almost never brought back souvenirs and my holiday decorations never grew because I had just the right amount in the exact style I was looking for.

My husband, however, is not like me at all. He believes that if there is a surface free, it needs to be covered with something. He loves reminders of places we’ve been. And he’s an incredibly organized person. He adores organizing in a way that boggles my mind. In fact, he’ll spend an hour moving things about a shelf until he gets the just-right arrangement.

His attention to detail exhausts me, although I have to admit that I love how the place looks, even with all the bits and bobs that I would never have on display if I were living alone. If he were to read Apartment Therapy’s 10 Signs you might be a maximalist, he would agree with almost every point.

So, how do a minimalist and a maximalist live together? By applying the basics. We compromise, we communicate, and we encourage yet moderate each other’s natural tendencies.

For example, in December my husband goes nuts with all the new holiday decorations that come out. If he had more space and money, he would fill shopping carts with cute, stylish, and fun decorations. I, on the other hand, will go out of my way to avoid going into stores at this time of year. Our compromise is this: I promise to show enthusiasm for the few things that really do catch my fancy, even if there is no need to buy them, while he recognizes that finding a few choice pieces increases the likelihood of using and appreciating each item rather than buying everything and using nothing.

And when it comes to cleaning, I focus on the daily surface tasks, while he will do the occasional deep-cleaning and reorganizing that is required with a bookshelf full of books, knick-knacks, and keepsakes.

Whether you are a minimalist or a maximalist, the key is to not to go to extremes. If you are embarrassed to have someone over, perhaps your maximalist tendencies have left you knee-deep in clutter. Or if people ask you if anyone actually lives in your home, perhaps you need to create a sort of moderate minimalism in your life.

Book Review: Crucial Conversations

One of the most difficult tasks when it comes to organizing the home is talking about it with other family members. It’s far too easy for conversations to deteriorate into arguments and suggestions about clutter to turn into accusations and attacks. In the end, the one wanting to unclutter becomes extreme wanting to throw everything out and the one resisting begins to hold onto to every little piece of paper saying that it’s all vitally important. No one’s happy and the clutter problem isn’t just still there, it’s grown into the focus of a battle of wills that can’t be won.

Fortunately, there exists a solution, and it comes in book format. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, 2nd Edition, is a book that helps people to prepare for delicate conversations, to transform anger and hurt feelings into dialogue, and to make any situation safe enough for all parties to freely discuss any topic.

My background is Anglo-Canadian, and so I come from a culture where delicate conversations were never held. I never learned how to initiate and participate in (possibly) anger-producing discussions; we would just avoid them. So, for me, finding this book has been a lifesaver both at work and at home.

Just looking at the table of contents provides a plan for tackling delicate situations:

  • Ch 1: What is a Crucial Conversation? And Who Cares?
  • Ch 2: Mastering Crucial Conversations: The Power of Dialogue
  • Ch 3: Start with the Heart: How to Stay Focused on What Your Really Want
  • Ch 4: Learn to Look: How to Notice When Safety is at Risk
  • Ch 5: Make It Safe: How to Make It Safe to Talk About Almost Anything
  • Ch 6: Master My Stories: How to Stay in Dialogue When You’re Angry, Scared or Hurt
  • Ch 7: State my Path: How to Speak Persuasively, Not Abrasively
  • Ch 8: Explore Others’ Paths: How to Listen When Others Blow Up or Clam Up
  • Ch 9: Move to Action: How to Turn Crucial Conversations into Action and Results
  • Ch 10: Yeah, But: Advice for Tough Cases
  • Ch 11: Putting it All Together: Tools for Preparing and Learning

At the beginning of the book, there is a quiz to help you determine what challenges you face in particular when it comes to the issue, and suggests which chapters should receive your special attention.

How has this book helped me?

Well, at work, I have to evaluate staff and sometimes provide feedback that no one wants to hear about themselves. Previously, I would have softened the message so much that no one was ever sure I was critiquing them. Now, however, I have a framework to use that doesn’t attack the listener, but allows me to express my concerns about their job performance.

And at home, instead of never saying anything because I did not want to upset my partner, I can now open up and create a safe space for discussing pretty much anything.

If I had read this book back when I was organizing professionally, it would have helped my business immensely. Often organizing clients feel ashamed or attacked when anyone speaks to them about their clutter and conversations slide into defensive, emotionally-charged situations. When family members are involved, these conversations can become full-blown arguments.

In my opinion, this book should be required reading for everyone, but most definitely it needs to be read by anyone who finds that delicate conversations either don’t happen or become arguments that harm their relationships when the goal is only to help those around them.

Crucial Conversations is available in print or in e-book and has a follow-up title called Crucial Accountability (previously titled Crucial Confrontations), also available in print or e-book (I have not read this latter book yet, but if it’s anywhere as useful as the first book, it’s a must-read as well). And if you like your books bundled, the two come as an e-bundle offer, as well.

Did you get the most out of summer?

For those of you with kids, summer can be a crazy time. The are very few routines and the kids are off doing some activity or another while you continue working. Or perhaps you had some time off and managed to get away or had a supposedly relaxing stay-cation.

The big question, however, is: Did you have fun? Did the kids have fun?

We don’t have kids, but my holidays are always in August each year, so while I don’t have others relying on me to plan and deliver on fun times, I always reach September and ask myself whether I took advantage of the time off I had, or whether I could have gotten more out of the time away from work.

In July before finishing work, I came up with a list of possible things to do in August. With thirty-one days to fill, I wanted to have something to do every single day if we felt like it. Of course, we allowed ourselves to say “no way, not today!” and spend the day in bed, by the pool or reading a book in a nice patch of sun, but what I didn’t want to happen was what has happened all too often when we both have time off together.

Husband: What do you want to do today?

Me: I don’t know. How about you?

Husband: No idea.

(We both go back to our smartphones and surf around social media.)

Me (an hour later): So what are we going to do?

Husband (looking at the time): We have to go grocery shopping and then there’s that pile of laundry over there…

And nothing fun happens. It’s just another day.

So, to avoid this issue, I came up with thirty-five different things we could do. Some were one-off events, others were repeatable depending on how much we liked them, the weather, and who we were with.

We knew who would be visiting us when and who might invite us out on day-trips or weekends.

I thrilled to tell you that it was a total success. We’ve never had a better summer and it was a sort of stay-cation. Normally we go away on some big trip where we exhaust ourselves squeezing fun and sun out of every second, but this year we divided our time between our two apartments. We went to the beach, took bike rides, put on the rollerblades that have been collecting dust for the past ten years, and visited little towns that we’ve been talking about for ages about seeing. We also made time for friends, including those we rarely get to see except when everyone has time off.

Most importantly, we relaxed with intention. That is, we made the conscious decision to do nothing some days. Rather than falling into a lazy day by accident and feeling like we were missing out on the summer.

And now, I’m ready to go back to work and routines refueled and refreshed.

How about you? What sort of summer have you had?

How to be a good host: planning for house guests

We love to have people stay with us. In my case, it’s in my blood. My parents ran a B&B for years, not because they needed the money, but because they loved meeting new people and taking care of them (I was going to say “showing them a good time” but it wasn’t that sort of B&B).

However, being a great host requires a lot of planning, thought, and preparation if you and your guests are going to have a good time and not end up stressed out by the end of the visit.

There’s a great article over on The Kitchn about how to be a good host and we do quite a few of the things listed there, but I thought I’d put down exactly what we do to make our friends and family feel that staying with us is like going to a 5-star resort, and yet without exhausting ourselves.

We plan meals in advance

If people have full and satisfied tummies, they are much happier and more relaxed. We always discuss options and give our expected guests a few (but not too many) choices. Eat in or dine out? Any food allergies or preferences? We also know most of our guests well, so can plan around their favourite foods (for example, one friend always has sushi and strawberry mojitos waiting for her when she comes over).

We cook as much as we can before guests arrive

Our menus often center around food that can be prepared days (or at least hours) beforehand, giving us the freedom to be spend time with our guests. And if the food is last-minute only, we take turns playing host while the other busies himself in the kitchen.

A special breakfast is essential

There’s a reason B&Bs and breakfast buffets at hotels are so popular — nothing says vacation like taking time to sit and chat while eating a variety of sweet and savoury dishes and sipping at a cappuccino. As I said above, happy tummies equal happy guests. Unless your day starts with a tight schedule, don’t rush through breakfast. And if you do have to get going without that relaxing café con leche, how about take some previously prepared muffins along for the ride?

We come up with a list of possible excursions

There’s nothing worse than getting a bunch of people together and then saying “so what do you want to do?” No one knows, ever. No one wants to be the pushy one. No one wants to be the one to decide.

When we have guests, we either tell them the plan (so many people on holiday love not having to think), or we give them a list of (limited) options to choose from. By thinking of possible outings before guests arrive, no one ends up sitting on the sofa staring at the ceiling wondering why they came to visit you anyway.

A shower-sergeant is imperative

Early July there were six of us in our one-bathroom apartment in La Rioja. We had a winery visit at noon and we finished our slow-breakfast at 10:30. Six people needed to shower, do their hair and get ready to leave for 11:45. If we hadn’t chivvied them along, we would never have left. It’s quite amusing to see even the most sensitive and anger-prone people jump up and dash into the bathroom without complaint when they hear “Next!” shouted out in our best “parent-voice.”

It’s all about the details

This is something I’ve learned from my husband. Turn your guests’ stay into something luxurious and extraordinary by:

  • Giving each guest a little kit of amenities from those that you’ve collected from your own hotel stays.
  • Having a guestbook where you paste a Polaroid onto the page and get them to write something about their visit.
  • Showing them something special about your town/city that someone unfamiliar with the place would never see.
  • Playing a silly party game like musical chairs or pin the tail on the donkey. Even the most serious adult will unwind and end up fighting for that last chair, believe me.

Let people help

In the past, whenever guests offered a hand, I always used to say no. They were guests and shouldn’t have to raise a finger. And yet, when I’m a guest in a friend’s house, if I don’t help out I feel selfish and uncomfortable. So, I’ve started saying “Yes, of course you can help, thanks!” Whether it’s cutting up some vegetables, helping me make the beds, or handing me clothespins while I hang up the beach towels, it deepens the bond between us and gives our hands something to do while we chat and catch up on each other’s lives.

Give people time to do nothing

This last point is the hardest one for us to have learned. We tend to believe that if our guests are sitting on the sofa playing with their mobiles, more or less in their own little worlds, it’s because we aren’t doing our jobs as hosts. But that’s not true, at all. Everyone needs to disconnect from interacting with each other. It’s exhausting being “on” all the time. And we’ve learned that this time is key for us as well. When we see that people are tuning out, we retire to the bedroom and take a well-needed nap, or slip into the kitchen to prepare a snack or some part of the next meal.

How about you? What do you do to make your guests’ stay memorable? Or what have you liked that someone else has done?

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.

A tale of two extremes

There’s a TV show in the UK that has recently made its way to Spain and it has quite a different take on the clutter/declutter reality TV market. The Spanish title translates to You get dirty and I’ll clean it up which is much more expressive than the original UK title of Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners.

The idea behind the show is that people who spend a large portion of their day cleaning their houses and getting rid of germs, go into houses that haven’t been cleaned in years.

At the end of each episode the narrator tells us what each person has learned from the experience, and more often than not, the cleaners say that they have relaxed their cleaning regime at home and the ones whose house was organized and cleaned say that they have learned the value in keeping their house visitor-presentable.

I’m not going to get into the perception of either side of the equation that the show generates as there is quite a bit of controversy over both sets of images. That’s not what today’s article is about.

No, what I find fascinating is the learning from each other part. I’ve already talked about this in my post about the concept of good enough but I wanted to explore it further.

At work, my former boss was all about the details and I’m a big-picture person. We often clashed (although that’s too harsh a word as conversations were always pleasant with her) about the number of details that needed to be considered before making a decision, as well as what, and how much of something should be kept, and for how long.

We learned a lot from each other. She learned that sometimes details only confused issues and I learned that they also allowed us to make well-informed decisions and gave a sense of history to what we do at work.

On the personal side of things, I come from a family where there’s always a silver-lining to any cloud and so planning wasn’t as important because there’s an opportunity for fun in every situation. My husband believes that more fun can be had if things are planned fully and that plan is kept. We’ve each learned to move a bit more towards the center. I have admitted that a great plan makes for a great day, and he allows that a plan not followed doesn’t mean total disaster.

Those are just two situations where some sort of relationship with an opposite personality type enriches my life.

How about you? How has a relationship of two extremes helped you?

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.

When neat and sloppy live together

A big part of why I write for Unclutterer is because an uncluttered life doesn’t come easily to me. I have to work at avoiding stacks of books, piles of clothes, and misplaced lists. Sharing victories and insights with you helps me discover and reinforce my own best practices.

While my default mode is “deal with it later,” my better half likes things neat, tidy, and sensible. I would’t say we’re Oscar and Felix, but my mess threshold is certainly higher than hers and over the years it has caused some friction in our relationship.

Differences in levels of tidiness can be problematic in a relationship, especially if the neat-adverse member is vilified by the tidy one or when the tidy party performs a disproportionate amount of the housework. Tina Tessina, a marriage and family therapist, told the Today Show that one in three couples she sees struggles with this issue, and that it’s most prevalent in young couples.

So what is a couple to do? If you’re one of those young couples and not yet living together, consider the advice from clinical psychologist and marital therapist Sam R. Hamburg: “The earlier you face up to differences like this and talk frankly about them, the better off you are.” In other words, talk about your expectations regarding tidiness before living together.

If you’re already living with someone and you have different levels of tidiness:

Compromise

I know there’s a saying that, “a good compromise leaves nobody happy,” but in this case it’s not necessarily true. One one hand, a drinking glass or two left on the coffee table isn’t the end of the world. Meanwhile, a mountainous pile of laundry on the floor isn’t acceptable. Both parties can learn to give a little. Instead of it being your-way-or-the-highway, discuss what is okay to leave as a little mess and what is absolutely not okay.

Designate messy and clean zones

I’m not suggesting you let one room devolve into the town recycling center, but not every room in your home needs to have the same level of tidiness expectations. The front room and kitchen might be your “always clean” zones and your garage workshop, sewing room, or game room can receive a little leeway and be a “messy” zone.

Motivate

My family has instituted the “hour of clean,” a time dedicated to giving the house a good once-over. Everyone knows when it’s scheduled and can prepare accordingly. Plus, it’s kind of fun with everyone involved and working together. Remember, too, that nagging has never motivated anyone, so leave that off your list of motivating strategies.

Have clear-cut responsibilities

I’m best when working from a specific list. When my wife hands me a list of chores or tasks, that’s great, as I have a clear definition of what needs to be done. For kids, you might take a photo of what an acceptable definition of “clean room” looks like and outline exactly what steps you want the child to take to get the desired result.

If a list would make other people in your home’s heads explode, use a less formal method of divvying up tasks. “I’ll do the laundry and mow the yard today.” “I’ll run the dishwasher and take out the trash.”

Have solutions that work for everyone

What works for one person in your home might not work for all. A three-step process for putting something away might be just fine for an adult, but a one-step process might be more appropriate for a toddler. When discussing your expectations, consider organizing and mess-busting solutions that everyone in your home can follow. You might be able to take off your shoes at the door and immediately walk them down to your clothes closet to be stored in labeled boxes, but your spouse might have trouble doing much more than taking off his or her shoes and not tracking mud through the house. A shoe storage solution by the main entrance of the house might be perfect for him or her, even though you have no use for it, and will help to keep the entrance clean to your specifications.

Organize a staycation

A regular weekend or an extended one can be a great time to have a staycation — a vacation where you enjoy the sights and activities that are found in and around your hometown. If this sounds like something you’d like to try, the following post describes how to organize for a great staycation and includes several ideas to get you started.

Make a list of what not to do on your staycation

First and foremost, you’ll want to make your staycation feel like a vacation as much as possible. While it’s true that a staycation isn’t the same as a zero-responsibility stay in a remote hotel, it can be a restorative and enjoyable time. To that end, you’ll want to limit your typical day-to-day responsibilities as much as possible, including:

  1. TV
  2. Time spent staring at phones
  3. Laundry
  4. Worrying about this and that
  5. Cooking
  6. Excessive cleaning

Create a list or a set of rules as to what you won’t do on your staycation to help you better define what you will be doing. Having this reminder will be exceptionally important if you will have other people participating in the staycation.

Plan activities

Since you’ll be staying at home, you might be tempted to think you can pull off a nice staycation without planning. “We live here, I know what’s around.” But time spent planning what you’ll do, how much money you’ll need, acquiring tickets, etc. will pay off in the long run and help you to feel more like you’re on a real vacation.

If you have kids and they’re old enough to have opinions, get them in on the planning discussion. If the ideas are really flowing, write them on strips of paper and stick them in a jar. Then draw one (or more) to determine what you’ll do each day. Create a staycation calendar to hang up or distribute, so everyone will know the plan.

Plan meals

It’s a staycation after all, so make necessary reservations and go out to dinner. If going out isn’t your style, gather menus from favorite spots or places that deliver. If you’re not interested in eating out, prepare freezer meals ahead of time that can be prepared with minimum effort and mess during your staycation.

Take care of small details

In the days leading up to your staycation, make sure laundry is caught up, outstanding school projects are done, and the house is tidy, so you can enjoy your staycation without those burdens. Be sure to mark these on the calendar so you actually get these things done ahead of time.

Staycation ideas

One activity my 11 year old came up with is an ice cream tour. Each day, we’ll drive to a new spot, try out what they’ve got and take photos as well as our reviews of what we try. Not the most healthful staycation idea, but definitely one everyone in our family would enjoy.

What is your area known for? So often we don’t do the fun, “touristy” things in our own back yards. For example, I lived on Cape Cod, Massachusetts for 21 years before taking a seal tour. I’d wager there are fun, tourist destinations to see or do in your hometown that you’ve never tried.

Visit a National Park (or two). National Parks are educational and set up to entertain all sorts of visitors. For additional fun, get a National Parks Passport that you can fill with stamps during your visit.

Find a minor league sporting event to attend. These are often less expensive than their major league counterparts and in smaller venues, so you can get closer to the action. I love minor league baseball, for example, and have had a great time seeing the Pawtucket Red Sox play.

Create an outdoor family film festival. Let everyone pick a favorite movie, set up a simple outdoor theatre, and settle in for fun.

Lastly, I’ll suggest looking for a local festival. These are typically a short drive away, inexpensive, and a lot of fun. In my neighborhood, we look forward to the Cranberry Festival, Oyster Festival and Scallop Festival. They’re always a good time.

Most importantly, just try to enjoy your time with the other people participating in your staycation. It’s a great opportunity to connect and bond. Relax, laugh, and do something a little different.

Uncluttering and other people’s things

An unfortunate uncluttering incident hit the news last week when Leonard Lasek accidentally discarded his wife’s copy of an old Judy Blume book.

As Lasek wrote on the posters he has put around his neighborhood:

I accidentally gave this book away on Saturday July 25th in a box on the corner of Green & Franklin. This book is extremely important to my wife. It was a keepsake from her mother and is irreplaceable. On the inside cover is a note that reads “Christmas 1991.” If you happened to pick up this book can you please get in touch with me.

Judy Blume heard about this and has offered to send an autographed copy as a replacement — which is wonderful, but even she isn’t sure she can get the specific edition since that particular printing is no longer available. Perhaps the person who picked it up will see one of the posters and will return it.

This incident is a good reminder that uncluttering someone else’s stuff without permission is almost never a good idea. (I’m not discussing extreme situations here, where there may be health or safety issues — just normal stuff that one person sees as clutter.)

Rather than getting rid of your partner’s things on the sly, consider going through them (with permission) and identifying those items that seem like good candidates for giving away, and then checking to see if your partner agrees.

I’ve found that checking in about everything, even the smallest of stuff, shows respect and builds trust. And that trust makes it easier to then have good discussions about the bigger things.

With children, uncluttering their things a bit more complicated. I’ve read and heard plenty of stories about adults who felt betrayed when, as children, their parents got rid of much-loved possessions. Yet involving children in every decision might be a real time-waster.

But it doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing situation. It might be fine to throw away a broken toy no one plays with anyway or to give away clothes the kids have outgrown. For other things, though, involving children in the decision-making process can teach them uncluttering habits and skills that will be useful throughout their lives. And sometimes they may surprise you! I’ve seen some children gladly give up way more toys than their parents thought they would.

At what age can children be involved? From my experience, I’d say that some preschoolers can do a fine job of choosing things to give away, with a bit of coaching. You can read online accounts of parents who started working on this with their children at age 3 or age 4.

Everyone likes to know that the things that are special to them, for whatever reason, aren’t going to disappear because someone else decided they were unimportant.