Organizing during grief

Everyone goes through periods of grief or bereavement at some point in life. This intense sorrow is often caused by the death of a loved one. However grief can be caused by many other events. Some of these events include:

  • The loss of anyone with whom you have a close bond, including pets.
  • The ending of a close relationship such as estrangement from spouse, sibling, parent, friend or even a business partner.
  • Physical, mental, emotional, and/or behavioural changes of a close family member or friend (such as a parent diagnosed with dementia or family member struggling with addiction).
  • Moving away from a long-time home, even if the change is due to a happy event like a new job or marriage.
  • A military deployment of a family member, even if the deployment is not to a hostile area.
  • The realization that a lifetime goal will never be achieved for example you did not get an anticipated job promotion or not accepted into a certain school.
  • For some people, the loss of certain possessions can trigger grief such as having to part with your first car or losing your wedding ring.

Grief causes stress and stress creates physiological changes in the body and brain. This may cause you to feel and act differently compared to non-stress situations. Although everyone feels grief differently, it is common to experience fatigue and irritability much more quickly. It may also be more difficult to concentrate, make decisions and solve problems.

Sometimes during periods of grief you may be expected to remain productive or even do some major organizing. Here are a few tips to help you through this difficult time.

  1. Get help with the grief. The most important thing is to get help to manage the feelings of grief. Confide in a friend or family member. Schedule an appointment with your doctor or mental health professional. Look for community support groups in your area.
  2. Adjust your expectations. Now that you know grief interferes with your ability to organize and make decisions, accept that during this period you probably won’t be at the top of your game. Relax and don’t be so hard on yourself.
  3. Prioritize. Our previous posts, Managing the overwhelmed feeling and Seven ways to cope with stress offer some great advice on prioritizing.
  4. Reduce the number of decisions. Some people try to reduce uncluttering to one decision – either keep everything or keep nothing. It could be that neither of these options is the best. Yet, deliberating over each individual item is frustrating and time-consuming. Instead, make some overarching decisions. For example, if you’re uncluttering books, you may decide to keep only those that were signed by the author and let the rest go to charity.
  5. Reduce the time, increase the frequency. If you’re having trouble concentrating on one task, try changing tasks. You could unclutter or organize during the commercial breaks of your favourite TV show. You could alternately read one chapter of a book then organize for a while. There is power in just 15-30 minutes a day.
  6. Hire a professional organizer. Members of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) and the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) are skilled in helping people who are having difficulty with organizing and productivity. They are also caring, compassionate, and discrete.

If you have tips for our readers on how to stay organized and productive during periods of grief and bereavement, please share them in the comments.

Do you maintain a clutter preserve?

Earlier this week I was reading a nice series of posts at Organized Home on “Decluttering 101.” It’s always good to brush up on the basics. The author, Cynthia Ewer, shared some good advice, as well as a concept I found quite interesting: the “clutter preserve.” I’ll let her explain it.

“Accept reality by establishing dedicated clutter preserves. Like wildlife preserves, these are limited areas where clutter may live freely, so long as it stays within boundaries. In a bedroom, one chair becomes the clutter preserve. Clothing may be thrown with abandon, so long as it’s thrown on the chair.”

A part of me shivers when I read this. If I create a clutter preserve — even one that’s out of the way — I fear it will foster others. As if it is tacit permission to make a tiny, obscure stack here, an unobtrusive pile there, and so on.

I see the logic in it, too. As Cynthia says, no one is squeaky-clean all the time. “Even the tidiest among us tosses clothes on the floor from time to time.” I can even relate this to email processing. Sure, it would be amazing to read and respond to every message every day, but for many of us that is not possible.

Now I want to ask you: do you maintain a clutter preserve, or maybe more than one? If so, do you attack it on a regular basis or is it there to offer sanity-saving permission to not be 100% perfect? Sound off in the comments, I’m eager to read what you think.

The least glamorous part of organizing

A significant uncluttering and organizing project can be exhilarating. You can see huge progress, and things that bothered you for a long time can find solutions.

But then there’s the ongoing maintenance: putting the toys back in place, dealing with the mail, etc. I don’t know anyone who enjoys this part of the organizing process, but it’s critical. Sadly, there is no magical organizing fairy who can complete the maintenance work with a wave of her wand. Given that, the following are some suggestions for tackling maintenance activities.

Don’t be too hard on yourself

Getting behind on maintenance happens to everyone I know at times, including myself and other fellow organizers.

Minimize the amount of maintenance required

If dealing with mail is overwhelming, you might invest some time in getting off mailing lists so there won’t be as much incoming mail. You can also look into going paperless for bank statements, bills, etc.

Reconsider who is doing the maintenance work

If you share your household with a spouse, domestic partner, children, or roommates, look at how the maintenance work is divided and see if there might be a better way to split up that work.

And if your budget accommodates it, consider paying someone to do certain tasks that are time-consuming or especially annoying.

Make the maintenance easier

Sometimes little adjustments, such as adding (or repositioning) a wastebasket, recycling bin, or laundry hamper can make a big difference. Using hooks instead of hangers can make it easier for some people to put away their coats, bathrobes, and such.

If your closets and other storage spaces are already quite full, minimizing new purchases (or instituting a one-in, one-out rule) will make it easier to ensure everything has an appropriate storage space, so it’s easy to put things away.

Determine what schedule works best for you

Do you do best with a short amount of maintenance work daily, or a larger chunk of time once/week — or some other schedule? Experiment and find a routine that feels comfortable for you.

Create holding places for items in between maintenance sessions

An inbox for mail, receipts, and other scraps of paper will keep them from being misplaced until you go through them to toss/recycle, shred, scan, or file. Maybe you’ll want a bin for things left laying around the living room (or other spaces) until your next scheduled time for putting all those things away.

Plan for ongoing uncluttering, too

Even if you’ve done a complete uncluttering exercise, it’s worth revisiting your possessions periodically. Children outgrow clothes and toys. Adults find their interests change. And almost everyone makes a few purchases that don’t work out, resulting in items that should be returned, donated, etc.

Look for ways to make maintenance time more pleasant

Having good tools (a shredder that doesn’t jam, nice clothes hangers, etc.) will make the work less annoying. A pleasant workspace for handling the paperwork can make a big difference, too. Some people enjoy listening to music as they do the work. Others give themselves mini-rewards after the work gets done.

Getting motivated to unclutter and organize

Starting and completing an organizing project can be hard — it takes time and continued focus on your goals. Some people get motivated when their frustrations become overwhelming. They are tired of not being able to find things, of feeling embarrassed by their homes, etc.

Sometimes people find their motivation in something they’ve read. Although organizers often find a collection of unused organizing books on people’s bookshelves, sometimes reading just the right book (Erin’s latest book, Marie Kondo’s book, etc.) at the right time can provide the inspiration needed.

Other people get motivated by images of organized spaces they see in magazines or on Pinterest. While these photos are often unrealistic — I’ve never met anyone whose home looks as picture-perfect as those shown in magazines — they can still inspire some people to imagine what their homes might look like and start taking steps in that direction.

For other people, the best way to stay motivated is to have a deadline. That can be a self-imposed deadline or one that comes from others: the IRS, family members, etc. I’ve seen people who had talked about getting organized for years, with no success, who became successful once they had deadlines they had to meet.

The following are some deadlines I’ve seen work for people:

  • I’m going to adopt, and the agency is coming to do a home visit.
  • My parents are coming to visit, and I want my home to look good when they get here.
  • I need to file my tax returns, so I have to get my papers organized.
  • My boss gave me a month to get more organized.
  • I’m replacing my broken garage door in a few weeks, and I have to clear out my packed garage before then.
  • I’m moving in a month, and I can’t take everything with me.
  • I’m going to be getting a roommate, so I need to unclutter the room she will be renting from me.
  • I’ve made an appointment for next month with someone who may want to buy some of my stuff.
  • I’ve told the storage facility that I plan to give up one of my three units next month.
  • I committed to my therapist/coach that I’d get going on this project before our next visit.
  • I want to participate in our neighborhood garage sale.
  • I promised my sister-in-law that I would send her the clothes my kids have outgrown, because they’ll be just the right sizes for her kids.

Note that if you are setting your own deadline, you can make sure it’s a realistic one for you. If you have multiple storage lockers, you can set a deadline for clearing out one of them at a time. You can set deadlines that are a month out, not next week.

And finally, many people are motivated by seeing progress. If you can find something that motivates you to begin the uncluttering and organizing process, you may find it easier to stay motivated to continue.

Gadgets to make yard work effective and fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should you buy a commercial or a residential vacuum?

Over the past week, I’ve been doing a lot of commercial cleaning. I’m using powerful chemicals and exceptional hardware, like vacuum cleaners and shop-vacs that are built to endure lots of use. This made me think: should I use commercial cleaning products at home? They’re effective and built to last forever. But are they appropriate for domestic cleaning?

The short answer is no, as commercial cleaners and domestic products are built to perform different jobs in different environments. A perfect illustration of this is the vacuum cleaner.

Should I buy a commercial [insert product you’re considering] for my home?

In the case of a commercial vacuum cleaner, it’s an attractive idea, isn’t it? Commercial vacuums are built to last and take more abuse than their residential counterparts. Let’s attack this question by looking at some pros and cons.

The pros

I struggled with putting cost in the pro vs. con column, but eventually pro won out. Yes, a commercial vacuum is expensive. For example, I’ve been using a Sebo 370 at work, which retails around $870. That’s not cheap, but Dyson makes home models that are in the same range. The idea here is that a commercial model will have a longer life than a residential machine, thereby costing less in the long run.

Readily-available parts. Big-box stores will infrequently stock parts for residential vacuums. If there’s an authorized retailer in your neighborhood you’re in luck (for example, I’m lucky enough to live near a Miele dealer). And you can often pick up parts for commercial units directly from the manufacturer or even a local distributor. So long as you’ve got that brand nearby, it isn’t an issue. If you don’t, this would move to the con column.

As I noted earlier, commercial vacuum cleaners are built to last and withstand abuse. They’re built of high-quality components and often have longer cords and heavier bodies. They’re designed with superior structural integrity to help them endure daily use as well as getting banged around a bit.

Lastly, they’re often more powerful than residential units. The first time I used a commercial machine I was amazed at what it picked up with a single pass.

The cons

They’re less comfortable. The Sebo I use at work is heavy. While it feels substantial and solid while pushing around, just haul it up a flight of stairs a few times and the bloom starts to come off the rose.

In general, home vacuums are designed to be lightweight and comfortable, while commercial units are meant to get a job done. This means a heavier machine, yes, but it also means that convenience items are missing like power control levels, that cool retractable cord, and tools for above-the-floor cleaning.

In addition, many commercial units have a reusable cloth bag instead of the disposable units your home machine has. No fun. You have to clean that bag.

I mentioned the power earlier and that sounds like a good thing, unless you have a delicate carpet. A commercial machine cares not about your precious carpets! It merely wants to get the job done. In fact, it can be too harsh for what you’ve got on the floor. Remember, these are meant for hotels, schools, and restaurants. In other words: industrial carpeting.

Lastly, they’re loud. As in, you turn it on and reflexively say, “Wow, that is loud.” Pets will run, birds will leap from the trees, and bunnies will cover their big, floppy ears.

Ultimately, when deciding between purchasing a commercial unit and a residential unit, it’s worth the time to weigh the actual pros and cons of the item before assuming the commercial unit is better for YOU. It might not actually be what you want, and you can end up creating clutter in your home and wasting money.

Simple, powerful organizing advice

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

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

Write things down

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

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

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

Execute

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

Tidy up along the way

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

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

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

The many ways to categorize your stuff

How do you choose to group things when you’re putting them on shelves, in cabinets, in closets, etc.?

I recently watched a video from the Field Museum’s Brain Scoop series with Emily Graslie where she dives into taxonomy: “a totally complicated, really interesting field of science responsible for the naming and classification of things.”

To do this, she had four taxonomists, who usually deal with things like beetles, discussing the taxonomy of candy.

And the taxonomists had fun with it. Olivier Rieppel said, “Organisms you classify according to their evolutionary relationships. With candy or office furniture or whatever you classify according to similarities.” So they wound up suggesting classification based on contents (chocolate covered or not, for example), by shape, by size, and by color.

Margaret Thayer didn’t think much of using color, though. She said, “That would be like taking a whole bunch of different red birds and putting them all together because they’re red, but one of them is a cardinal and one is some kind of duck.”

But Larry Heaney, who suggested grouping by color, said, “That’s the thing about candy. You can put it together, you can group them any way you want.”

Besides making me crave some candy, the Brain Scoop video made me think about the many ways you might choose to group things in your home of office. Just as with candy, you can use any groupings you want, as long as they work for you.

For example, books can be classified using the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress classification system, or by any other method you like, including:

  • Genre (science fiction, historical fiction, history, art, etc.)
  • Alphabetical order by author
  • Size
  • Color
  • Chronological order, especially for series or any books by a single author
  • Status: read vs. not yet read
  • Owned vs. borrowed: library books, books borrowed from friends, and books you own
  • Language, if you have books in multiple languages
  • Owner, in a multi-person household

These classifications can be nested (by author within a genre, for example) and combined. Sometimes you might need to compromise from your ideal grouping to accommodate the storage space you have, especially when it comes to oversized books.

While some may question your choices — as with the candy, some people mock those who group books by color — whatever helps you find the right book when you want it is the right system for you.

Similarly, clothes might be classified by:

  • Type: pants, T-shirts, coats, etc.
  • Use: work vs. non-work, for example
  • Color (which can make a lot of sense in this situation)
  • Season (winter vs. summer clothes)
  • Fabric (because some fabrics may require different storage solutions)
  • Size (for those whose size tends to fluctuate, or for children’s clothing when you have clothes for both the current size and the next ones, or if you’re storing clothes for a second child)
  • Length (to accommodate items needing a long-hang area)
  • Freshly washed vs. worn but still clean

If the groupings you’re currently using for your books, clothes or other items aren’t working for you, think about what might work better and give it a try.

Organize goals with the SELF Journal

There are numerous tools on the market to help you organize your goals, and I’ve recently began to use one that might also interest you: The SELF Journal. This little notebook is something I backed on Kickstarter back in 2015. After receiving my journal in December, I used it to successfully plan and implement a new season of my podcast. The experience was so positive, I’ve decided to share it with you.

Are you setting goals effectively?

The problem with goal setting is that many people do it in a way that doesn’t help them to achieve their goals. Many set unrealistic goals (run a marathon next weekend without any training), underestimate completion time, or fail to review progress.

Another big hiccup is not having a plan. Let’s say you set a goal of organizing the garage, top to bottom. Simply saying, “I’m going to organize the garage this weekend,” isn’t enough and probably won’t work. The SELF Journal, aside from being well-made and attractive, features a built-in system for moving toward a goal effectively, day by day.

The SELF Journal method

When my journal arrived last December, I was ready to dive in. I had a project that needed a lot of time and attention, and the journal seemed like a perfect fit for helping me to achieve it. In a nutshell, the book uses these methods:

  1. You create a 13-week roadmap. Many poorly-crafted goals lack a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The SELF Journal helps you to create this timeline and write it down.
  2. A procrastination-busting calendar. You’re encouraged to fill every working time slot with a relevant activity. No, “just checking Twitter real quick” does not count.
  3. Prioritized planning. You’re meant to plan tomorrow’s tasks today, so you’re clear on what’s to be done in the morning.

There are two more aspects that I really like in the journal. The first is tracking and reflection. The journal provides space for you do reflect on your wins for the day and what you’ve learned. The wins emphasize the last aspect of the system — bookending your day with positive psychology — while the opportunity to record lessons learned informs future work.

The book’s morning routine emphasizes the preparation and work, while the evening routine highlights reflection.

I’ve been quite happy with it and I suspect others will also find it beneficial. Its current price is $31.99.

Uncluttered and minimalist aren’t the same

Some people are happy living in a minimalist space. I recently read a blog post by Derek Sivers that described his home:

I live in a little pre-furnished apartment with no stuff, and I love it this way. I have no books, knicknacks, decorations, and really no personal items at all. Just some minimal clothing, my laptop, headphones, and not much else. All the kitchenware and furniture just came with the place, and will stay here when I leave.

There are certainly benefits to owning fewer things. Derek moves every year or two, so owning very little makes those moves easy for him. Owning less stuff also means there’s less to collect dust, which can be important to those with allergies. And you can choose to rent or buy a smaller home, thus saving money. Of course, you also save money by buying fewer things — or you might spend the same amount but find you can afford to buy things of higher quality.

But many other people would feel unhappy living as Derek does. They would agree with the woman who created the website entitled Stuff Does Matter, where she wrote, “Stuff has the power to nourish us physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally.”

And you certainly don’t need to be a minimalist to be uncluttered and organized. If everything you own has a home, can be found when you need it, and makes you happy (or serves a vital purpose), you’re doing just fine.

Some people like a house or apartment that’s sparsely furnished while others enjoy filling their homes with art, books, music, mementos, cherished collections, etc. That’s a matter of personal preference, and people on either end of the spectrum can be organized.

Of course, having fewer things can make it easier to get organized and stay organized. It’s easier to find a place to store everything when there isn’t as much to be stored. It’s easier to put something back into a closet or drawer that has plenty of empty space than into one that’s close to full. If you want to do any home projects such as painting the walls or replacing the carpet, those projects will go quicker if you don’t have as much to box up and move out of the way — and then move back and unbox.

On a now-defunct blog I’ve had bookmarked for years, someone wrote about his approach to his possessions, which he called mediumism. As he explained, “I buy only what I need, but I have no desire to live with just 100 things. I watch very little television. … I still plan to keep my 32-inch LCD for now.” If minimalism feels wrong for you, maybe mediumism will resonate.

Just remember that the idea behind uncluttering is to have a home that pleases you and supports you in achieving your goals. That may mean you own 150 things, 1,500 things, or 15,000 things. There’s no magic number — there’s only the answer that’s right for you.

Being early

As the person who was voted by his classmates “most likely to have a tardy slip” in eighth grade, I’ve had a lot to overcome when it comes to punctuality.

If someone were to ask me about why I was often late, my most common answer would have been some variation of “I ran out of time.” Does this sound familiar? Additionally, I thought that arriving earlier than I needed was a waste of time. Why sit in the parking lot and do nothing for 15 minutes? Also, there’s a rush that can accompany sprinting out of the door at the last second.

I believe that I was into that rush for a while, at least subconsciously. Waiting until the last possible second generated an adrenaline release that accompanied the sudden, pressing flurry of activity, and that was something I enjoyed. Once I recognized that’s what was going on, it was time to address it.

And, surprisingly, all I did was create a simple pro and con list regarding my persistent tardiness. On the “pro” side (if you can call it that) was the thrill of adrenaline and the other reasons I already mentioned. The con side was much longer, and much more convincing: chronic stress, disappointing others, disrespecting others’ time, shoddy work, etc. With that in mind, I decided to be chronically early.

Ultimately, I discovered that being early can actually save you time. Here’s how:

  1. You have time to relax and prepare before an event. Arriving 15 minutes early isn’t a waste of 15 minutes, it’s a gain. Look over your papers. Review what you’re going to do or say in your head. Or, just sip your coffee or tea and breathe.
  2. Good things pop up. I’ve been in situations where someone has said to me, “Oh, since you’re early do you want to help me with something?” I was able to provide a little unexpected something extra to someone else, which they won’t forget.
  3. Bust out some email replies. When I pick up my daughter from ballet classes, I like to be a good 15 minutes early. The waiting room is quiet and cozy with lots of comfortable furniture — perfect for replying to a few email messages. Again, that’s 15 minutes gained, not wasted.

Finally, and this is my favorite reason to be early: it gives me time to connect with others. “Why are we so early?” my kids often ask. The answer is so we can talk. Or laugh. Or discuss school or friends. Even 10 quiet minutes in the car or a waiting room can be so nice.

Some organization is required to join the perpetually early. Commit to working on projects well before they’re due. Leave the house earlier than you think you need to, and ensure that bags are packed and ready to go the night before they’re needed. You’ll be sipping tea and chilling out while everyone else is speeding along, stressed to the gills in an attempt to show up on time. Welcome to the early club.

Creating a schedule to reflect your priorities

One of my resolutions for 2016 is to get a better handle on my time. I created this resolution because I noticed in the last three or four months of 2015 that the vast majority of my days were spent catching up or just going with the flow instead of actively participating and pursuing what matters most to me. It’s not that I was neglecting my priorities, rather that I was being passive about them.

To help work toward my resolution, I bypassed traditional goal-setting and went straight for creating a list of to-do items. For my first to-do item, I wanted to track exactly how I was spending my time — from the moment I woke up in the morning until I went to bed each night. I grabbed a stopwatch and a notebook and recorded what I did each time I changed activities. Some things I left a little vague, such as “got ready for the day,” since brushing teeth and getting dressed aren’t things I’m going to remove from my daily routine. But for the most part, I kept detailed notes of how I spent my time like, “checked Facebook on phone” and “read 2 pgs. of a book while standing at bus stop waiting for son.” After a week of recording data, I felt that I had a decent idea of how I was spending my time (and I was bored out of my mind with writing down what I was doing). If this is your first time recording data about how to spend your time, you may wish to log your activities for two weeks because often the act of logging what you’re doing influences how you spend your time. Once the novelty of tracking what you’re doing wears off, you’ll get a better idea of how you’re really operating.

My second to-do item was to sort through the logs and label the activities. I chose three colors of highlighters and swiped a color over each activity. Yellow were for activities fully in line with my priorities and my time commitment to those activities or actions taking care of my responsibilities (like depositing money into my retirement fund — it’s not a task I particularly enjoy, but it’s one that takes care of a responsibility that is in line with my priorities). Pink highlights were for activities not in line with my priorities or actions that were in line with my priorities but taking up more of my time than I wanted (like staying in touch with my family and friends is a priority and reading and posting to Facebook is one of the many ways I fulfill that priority, but I don’t need to check in with Facebook four times a day when two times is sufficient). Green highlights were for things in line with my priorities that I wanted to spend more time on than I was (one example that fell into this category was that I was lifting weights three times a week but I wanted to start training for a triathlon, so I needed to increase my numbers and types of workouts to better reflect this priority).

My last to-do item was to create and begin to follow a new schedule that more accurately represents my priorities. I chose to make a weekly calendar, broken into 30-minute increments, to help me with this process. In addition to chores, wake up and bed times, and most of my life’s set activities, I’ve mapped out blocks of time that are more open ended but still have direction. For example, after cleanup from dinner but before it’s time to start getting the kids ready for bed, there is usually an hour of “free” time. Each night I’ve made notes on the calendar for ideas of things to do during this hour that reflect my priorities. Instead of plopping myself down in front of the television (which is not a priority for me on weeknights), I now have a list of things I can do that I know bring me much more happiness than squandering that time (like working on a puzzle with my kids or having a living room dance part with them or playing flashlight tag in the yard if the weather is cooperating or Skyping with my parents).

Since creating the new schedule, I’ve been much happier and feel more like I’m actively participating in my life. I’m not rigid with the schedule — if something falls through the cracks or I come down with a migraine (like I did on Saturday), I’m not freaking out about abandoning the schedule for a bit. It’s there more as a guide than a law, and this attitude is working well for me.

How do you ensure that your time is focused on what matters most to you? Do you think a similar schedule would help you to feel happier and more comfortable with how you’re spending your time? A few changes might be all it takes to get your life more in line with your priorities.