How to remain a disorganized mess

It’s Monday. We’re in a good mood, and we don’t know why. Instead of a heavy post to bog you down at the start of the week, we wanted to do something fun. Think of the following as an instructional manual for how to be overwhelmed by your clutter. Feel welcome to add to the list in our comments (and try not to take this too seriously, we’re just having some fun).

  • Aspire to unrealistic depictions of “organization” boards on Pinterest.
  • Walk through a model home and stress out about how much more clutter you have than the house where no one lives.
  • Understand that a stack of random school papers on the kitchen table is the end of the world.
  • Make a mental list of how you aren’t as “together” as [person X]. Review it daily.
  • Compare yourself to other parents/workers/neighbors.
  • Blow off the laundry for one day, toss up your hands and say, “Well that’s it, then.”
  • Realize that you’ll never be perfect, so there’s no use in trying.
  • Believe that an “organized person” = “good person.” The opposite is true, obviously.
  • Decide you have to be organized RIGHT NOW. It only takes 30 minutes on television shows!
  • Forget that organizing is a skill, attribute it to genetics.
  • Toss and turn in bed, mentally reviewing all the things you have to do tomorrow, and refuse to write any of those items down.
  • Stop inviting friends over because your house doesn’t look like a magazine.
  • Create a filing system based on a secret code you have to reference to be able to use.

(Today’s post inspired by Annie Mueller.)

The importance of having tools you love

Think about the tools you use every day: to prepare your meals, to do your work, to clean your home, etc. Given how often you use these kinds of tools, it’s wise to look for ones that you enjoy using. This makes every day more pleasant, and it often saves money in the long term since you buy something once and don’t need to replace it.

What makes a tool enjoyable to use? Obviously, it must do its job very well. Good tools can make you more efficient and may also help you avoid procrastinating on a not-so-fun task. And sometimes one really good tool can replace a number of poorer quality tools, making your space less cluttered.

Another aspect of an enjoyable tool can be aesthetics. And sometimes there are also less tangible elements. For example, a product might bring back good memories.

You often don’t need to be extravagant to find such tools, either. The following are some examples I’ve come across recently:

I need a reminder to get up from my desk every 30 minutes and move a bit. I got the world’s simplest timer, and now I don’t forget. And it looks good sitting out on my desk, too.

Dish towels
Someone suggested flour sack dish towels to me some time ago, and I finally bought one. I really like it! I’m now planning to buy a few more, and pass my old towels along to someone else. Since my kitchen doesn’t have a dishwasher, I’m especially delighted to have towels that work so well for me, in a pattern that makes me smile.

Even though I try to go paperless as much as feasible, I still need a printer. I had an old HP printer that I could never make myself replace, even though it always annoyed me for purely emotional reasons. (I used to work for HP, and I feel sad about how the company has changed over the years.) When it broke a few weeks ago, I replaced it with an Epson, and now I wish I’d made the change earlier. I’m also delighted that the Epson is wireless, giving me one less cord needing to be controlled. I don’t know that I love this new printer, but I definitely like it a lot better than my previous one.

Smartphones and their apps
Sometimes the issue is not what to buy but how to configure the tool you’ve bought so it works well for you. I listened to a podcast where one speaker spent many hours arranging the icons on his iPhone based largely on functionality, but also based on creating a pleasing visual arrangement given the colors of the icons. The second part is not something I’d ever do, but I understand the aesthetic impulse. Getting the icon arrangement right was what he needed to do to make the smartphone a tool he loved.

If you have examples of tools you love, I would enjoy hearing about them in the comments.

Eliminating single points of failure

Many years ago, I worked as the IT director for a school here in Massachusetts. It was a multi-faceted job that included maintaining a file server, a backup server, well over 100 machines and, finally, a help desk for about 125 people. I have some amusing stories from those years, as well as an important lesson: never have a single point of failure.

Redundancy was the name of the game in my previous job. For example, our file server was connected to something called an “uninterruptible power source,” or UPS. A UPS provides electricity in the event of a power outage. That way, if a storm knocks power out, I still had time to get to our computers and shut them down properly.

I also ran a backup server that saved its daily and monthly backups to several locations. If one of those backups failed for whatever reason, I could rely on one of the alternates to provide what I needed. What does this have to do with daily life? Plenty.

As Leo Babauta once said on Zen Habits: “I’ve seen people pay $1,000 to hear speakers at a conference and only have one pen to take notes.” If that pen breaks or runs out of ink within the first five minutes, you’re out of luck. The simple act of bringing two or even three pens can eliminate a potential problem.

Consider where there might be a single point of failure in your life right now. I did some brainstorming of my own, and came up with this list:

  1. More than one flashlight. Here in semi-rural Cape Cod, we lose power at the drop of a hat. Keeping three inexpensive flashlights in the closet eliminates some stress.
  2. Car keys. Most new cars are sold with a pair of keys. But that’s not always the case with used cars. If you’ve only got one key, spend the money to get a second.
  3. Charger cables. These things aren’t really built to last longer than a couple of years it seems, yet we don’t replace them until they become a frayed fire hazard. Keep a fresh one in a drawer so you can swap it out with the original before plugging it into the wall becomes an act of pure optimism. Additionally, having multiple charging cables in different locations (such as one at your home, one at your office, one in your briefcase) means that you don’t ever have to worry about forgetting a cable when you need it most.
  4. Important documents, like birth certificates, marriage certificates, social security cards, etc. My practice is to put the originals in a safe deposit box and keep photo copies on hand. If I lose/damage the copy it’s no big deal, and I can always retrieve the original if I need it.

Finally, and you probably saw this coming, I’ll say please make multiple backups of your important digital files. A solution as simple as Dropbox makes it very easy to have files both on your computer and safely on their servers. Additionally, Carbonite and Crashplan will back up your computer in its entirety. (Erin wants you to know she’s a fan of Backblaze.)

Make a list of the single points of failure in your life right now, and see if you can fix them. Someday you might be very glad you did.

Uncluttering: Moving past the “what if” questions

I’m in the process of cleaning out my garage — going through the cabinets and getting rid of things I no longer need or want.

In many cases, the decision-making has been easy. For example, I don’t remember how I wound up with 15 packages of wood screws, but I sure don’t need them now. I freecycled them, so they’ve moved along to someone who does have a use for them.

But other times I found myself asking “what if” questions, just as so many people trying to unclutter do. But when I really considered my answers, I wound up getting rid of almost everything I questioned. The following are some examples — I hope this will help others who fall into the “what if” trap.

Item #1: Skunk odor remover
I got this when I had an indoor/outdoor cat, but both of my current cats are indoor-only. But what if a skunk sprayed me while I was out walking at night?

What I decided: That’s never happened in the 25 years I’ve lived in my house. If for some reason it did, I could always use the hydrogen peroxide/baking soda/dish soap mixture that so many authorities recommend. So I gave the bottled product away to someone with a dog that gets skunked every so often.

Item #2: Various organizing products
I had a collection of random organizing-type products. Some were given to me as samples, some were leftovers from a specific project, and some I can’t even remember how I came to own. I could certainly give them away, but what if I have a client in the future who could use them?

What I decided: There are a small number of products I specifically keep on hand because so many clients find them useful. But these other items were all products I hadn’t found a use for in many years. And some of them, such as the legal-sized file pockets, would only appeal to a limited number of people. I freecycled the file pockets (which went to a legal office) and one other item, and donated the rest.

Item #3: Phone bell
I have a phone bell that serves as a replacement ringer for my landline phone, and I really like it. But somehow I wound up with a second one of these. I have no immediate use for it, but what if my current one broke?

What I decided: The phone bell I have seems unlikely to break; it’s not a fragile kind of thing. And if it does break, it wouldn’t be a big deal, since I could just turn the normal phone ringer back on. I get fewer calls on the landline then I did when I bought this product years ago, given how many other ways we have to communicate now, so the annoying phone ringer wouldn’t be something I’d hear all that often. Therefore, I gave the extra phone bell away to someone who can use it now, rather than leaving it sitting on a shelf.

Item #4: Heart-shaped glass bowl
I got this intending to use it as a gift many years ago — so long ago that I don’t remember who it was intended for and why it never was given away. But what if I could use it as a gift for someone else?

What I decided: While this is a beautiful piece, I can’t think of anyone for whom it seems like a perfect gift. (If I did know someone, I’d gladly give it to that person right now!) And I don’t like keeping generic gifts around to give to someone, someday — I prefer to choose something specifically for each recipient. So this item will be given away, too. It would be a shame to keep it sitting in my cabinet any longer when it could be used and appreciated by someone else, right now.

In summary: I realized all my “what if” scenarios were unlikely to happen. And even if they did, I’d cope just fine. I didn’t need to keep things around indefinitely, “just in case.” I could let them go on to new owners, who would make use of them right away, and reclaim my storage space.

Productivity with Henry Miller

I’m always eager to learn new ways to stay organized and productive. Often I’ll do what many of you do: read blog posts, listen to podcasts, and read books. Many people are doing great work in these areas today, which I appreciate. However, my focus on contemporary work often causes me to overlook fantastic advice from the past, which is why I wanted to feature a little helpful advice from someone from the past: Henry Miller.

Henry Miller was the American-born writer whose works Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn, defined a new style of semi-autobiographical novel. Miller also wrote Henry Miller on Writing, in which he described how he set goals, stayed focused, and got stuff done. It included, among other things, a fantastic list of his “11 Commandments of Writing”:

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Henry is taking about writing, of course, but his ideas can be applied to almost any work you do. I also think some of his words could use a little interpretation. Since Henry is no longer around, we can’t ask what he meant, but I’ll do my best to decipher his list.

Number one is self-evident and frankly, something I struggle with. It can be so simple to work on another project to distract yourself from what needs to be finished. Number two was clearly along these same lines, but specific to what he was working on at the time he created the list.

I like number three and four. Recently I was sitting in front of my computer at 11:00 p.m. and, after three unproductive hours, called it quits for the night. I was miserable and producing nothing, so I stopped. The next day I had renewed energy and a new perspective.

Number five is a great point: You can always work, or be productive, even if progress on your intended goal seems to elude you. There is always something to be done, and it doesn’t always have to be creative. Being in a creative slump doesn’t get you off the hook.

I think number six goes back to number one: Don’t start (fertilize) “Project B” until Project A is complete.

Seven and eight are good perspectives because they remind you not to spend too much time in your head, which is especially easy to do when you’re working on a big and important project.

Nine is similar to his earlier points three and four. And ten is again very similar to one.

Finally, the idea behind eleven is to tackle the most important things first. When you have the most energy, focus that energy on the most important work you need or want to do.

There is solid wisdom to be found from smart folks who are long gone. If you search for it, you might be surprise at what you find.

Answers to a reader’s four questions

On the 14th, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

An Unclutterer reader wrote in and talked about her four main struggles.

1. Finding pockets of time in the day to do large projects when you have small kids around. For example, I am trying to stain our wooden fence on our own, but I have two children under 3 years old. How can I approach this messy process strategically?

I’ve been in this situation before. I had two young children and my husband was deployed for six months straight with the Canadian Forces. One suggestion would be to find some teenagers you can hire. You can ask around to neighbours and friends or visit the local secondary school or community centre if you don’t know any personally. Some teens would appreciate getting paid for a few hours of work per week painting your fence or keeping your children occupied while you work on the household chores.

Another suggestion might be if you have friends with young children, you can do an exchange. One grown-up looks after all of the children and the other grown-up works on a project. The next time, you switch.

Before engaging someone to assist you, it’s always best to have a plan of what you can accomplish during the time you have. Here are some tips I’ve learned from experience:

  • Always underestimate the amount of work you’ll get done in the time that you have. If you think it will take you two hours to paint the fence, it may really take you four hours. Remember to include set-up and cleanup times in your estimate.
  • Always have a Plan B. If you’ve booked a sitter so you can paint the fence, have an alternative project to work on (e.g. sewing curtains) in case it rains that day.
  • Don’t fret if you’re not making as much progress as you’d like. Remember that slow and steady wins the race.

2. Overcoming analysis paralysis … how do I restore my decision-making confidence and JUST DO IT? For example, hanging art on the wall: it feels like a permanent choice! So I delay!

We’ve written before about improving decision-making skills and how to make the process of decision making easier. Reviewing these posts might help you get over your “analysis-paralysis.”

As someone who has moved houses eight times in 23 years, I can say that nothing is “permanent,” some things might just take a little more effort to change than others. As far as hanging art on the walls, try GeckoTech Reusable Hooks. They are made with a unique synthetic rubber technology that allows them to be used again and again. 3M picture strips are also very handy for hanging artwork without damaging walls. You may also wish to consider the STAS cliprail pro Picture Hanging System.

Apartment Therapy has great tips for hanging artwork so go ahead and make your house a home.

3. Thinking long-term about home projects, while on a budget. We plan to stay in our home a long time, but it needs some love. But our wallets are thin! What should we prioritize: remodeling the kitchen, or taking control of the landscaping? New interior paint job or pressure washing and re-glazing the pebble driveway? What house projects are most important and have lasting impact?

Home renovations can make your home more comfortable, improve your living experience, and increase the value of the home. However, shoddy workmanship or too much “unique customization” may actually decrease the value of your home.

Start with the basics by keeping the home safe and livable. Consider projects that involve your home’s structure (roof, windows, doors, etc.) or mechanical systems (furnace, air conditioning, electrics, plumbing). These upgrades make your home more energy efficient and may actually pay for themselves during the time that you live in the home. Insurance companies may also decrease premiums when you improve wiring, install secure windows, or add an alarm system.

Next, think about making you home more livable. High-end countertops may look good in magazines but more cupboard space may be what your family needs right now. Discuss your ideas with a designer and talk to a few contractors to determine prices and see what fits with your budget. You may decide to do the work yourself, but talking about it with a professional is great for brewing ideas.

Try to build the most flexibility and long-term usefulness into your designs. Remember that children grow quickly, so envision the basement toy room becoming a games room and study area in a few years. Installing the required wiring now will save you time and money later, and may also add a selling feature if you decide to move.

You might be able to do some work yourself, such as painting or installing closet systems. However, because of permits and laws/regulations/codes, most people find it best to hire professionals for tasks requiring plumbing, electrical work, specialized carpentry, and work involving altering the structure of your home (supporting walls, roofs, staircases, etc.).

4. How can we encourage others in our life to take care of their clutter before they leave this earth and give all their clutter to us? This is especially a problem when they don’t think what they have is clutter!

Unfortunately, the value of an item is in the eye of the beholder. Items you might consider clutter, might be of significant value to someone else. It would be difficult to ask someone to part with items that are valuable to him or her. You can’t control another person’s desires, wishes, and attachments to their things.

However, there are some steps you can take to ensure that your family members’ items are appreciated once they pass on.

Envision what you want for your family. Are you minimalists? Do you prefer art-deco style furniture? Will you travel? What hobbies do you enjoy or do you wish to start a few new hobbies? It helps to write down the lifestyle you want to lead and then act according to these visions when the time comes.

Prepare a respectful “no thank-you” response now. Chances are you will be offered something you don’t want or you will be told that items are being kept for you. If the item will not fit into your envisioned lifestyle, you will be able to turn it down. For example:

I know [item] is very important to you and it means a lot that you want us to have it after you are gone. But [item] will never replace you or our memories of you. Let’s consider how [item] could best be used and appreciated. Perhaps we should:

  • Consider offering [item] to a [name friend or family member] who would truly appreciate it
  • Donate [item] to charity or museum, where it could be used or appreciated by even more people
  • Sell [item] and either enjoy or donate the money

Sometimes once people find they are no longer obligated to hold an item for you, they are more willing to let it go.

Book review: Better Than Before

It’s rare that I come across a book and think, “every Unclutterer reader could benefit from reading this book.” But Gretchen Rubin’s latest book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives falls into that exclusive category.

As the title suggests, this book is about creating beneficial life-long habits. The book doesn’t prescribe which habits a person should create, rather it’s a comprehensive exploration of HOW to make lasting habits that YOU want to make. If you want to be more productive, manage your time better, stay current with household chores, live in an organized manner, have better follow through, or any of the other “Essential Seven” changes like exercise regularly or eat and drink more healthfully, this book can help you to make that happen.

First and foremost, Rubin acknowledges that everyone is different and a one-size-fits-all approach to habit formation is ineffective. In the Self Knowledge section, she provides questions and examples to help the reader learn more about him/herself to determine what methods and strategies will actually stick. She points out that most people fall into one of four habit tendencies — she calls them The Four Tendencies — and structures the advice in the book around this concept. (For example: I’m predominantly an Upholder, but have a few Questioner leanings. Therefore, I know her suggestions for Upholders will almost always work for me and if not, the Questioner suggestions are what I should try next.)

From there, Rubin recommends strategies for how to determine which habits you wish to cultivate and why you may wish to introduce specific habits into your life. She believes, as I do, that “How we schedule our days is how we spend our lives.” Our daily habits are who we are. She defines habits as “freeing us from decision making and from using self-control,” and more clearly explains this definition of habits a few paragraphs later:

When possible, the brain makes a behavior into a habit, which saves effort and therefore gives us more capacity to deal with complex, novel, or urgent matters. Habits mean we don’t strain ourselves to make decisions, weigh choices, dole out rewards, or prod ourselves to begin. Life becomes simpler, and many daily hassles vanish.

So, once you have clarity of what you wish to do and what habits you wish to incorporate to reflect your identity, you can set forth on your habit creations and life changes. She believes there are four Pillars of Habits: Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability. You’ve likely encountered these concepts before in terms of goal setting — you need to be able to monitor (in a quantifiable way) the process and outcomes, you need to begin with a foundation of changes that will produce results quickly and in a rewarding way, you need to schedule when the habits will take place, and then have a way to be accountable for your changes. Rubin provides varying types of strategies in each of these Pillars based on your tendency type.

Next, she addresses how to begin the new habits. And then, what I see as the most valuable part of the book, Rubin explores the most common ways people fail at sustaining good habits and how to overcome those problems based on their tendencies. In the chapter “Desire, Ease, and Excuses,” I was most drawn to the sections on Safeguards and Loophole-Spotting.

Safeguards, at least as I interpreted them, are plans you create in advance for when you expect to fail or when you will make exceptions to your habits. It’s knowing yourself well enough to predict how you will fall off the proverbial wagon and then plan what you will do about it when it happens. They’re backup plans formulated in the If-Then method: “If _____ happens, then I will do _____.” For example, I abstain from eating doughnuts — I’m not a huge fan of them and they’re not a healthful food choice. However, based on experience, I know there is one situation where I have virtually no self-control when it comes to consuming them. Therefore, I have a safeguard in place for when I find myself in that specific tempting situation. “If someone offers me a doughnut, then I will eat one ONLY if I am standing in a doughnut shop and the doughnut is hot and fresh off the production line.” I am a person who doesn’t eat doughnuts except in that specific situation, and since I am rarely in that situation, I at least know how I will handle myself if/when I encounter it. In 10 years, I have only encountered that situation twice.

Loophole-Spotting is similar to Safeguards in that it requires you to plan how you will behave when you seek out loopholes. I’m not a huge loophole seeker (I like to finish projects more than start them), but one of the loophole examples Rubin provides was something I do all the time. She names 10 common loopholes (you’ve likely used the “This Doesn’t Count” Loophole when you’re sick or on vacation and the Tomorrow Loophole when you put things off until tomorrow) and the one that screamed at me was the Concern for Others Loophole. This loophole is when we excuse our behavior because we believe our exceptions to our habits are for another person’s benefit, when that actually isn’t the case. She provides numerous examples that I’ve made countless times in my life and one just the other day: “It would be rude to go to a friend’s birthday party and not eat a piece of cake.” Similar to doughnuts, I’m not a huge fan of cake and I prefer to abstain, yet I eat a slice of cake at every birthday party I attend because I don’t want to seem rude! Her advice for dealing with loopholes is sound:

By catching ourselves in the act of invoking a loophole, we give ourselves an opportunity to reject it, and stick to the habits that we want to foster.

I personally found this book to be incredibly helpful. If you want to make changes in your life through the adoption of positive habits, I strongly recommend Gretchen Rubin’s latest book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Again, I truly believe all unclutterers could benefit from the research and analysis contained in it. Establishing uncluttering and organizing habits can simplify one’s life, and Rubin’s methods can show you how to do this effectively.

Reduce visual clutter

Even when you have a place for everything in your home and everything is in its place, you still might feel like your home (or part of it) continues to appear cluttered. The article “Measuring visual clutter” in the Journal of Vision explains how this is possible and ways you can reduce visual clutter in your already tidy spaces.

How to reduce visual clutter

Create one focal point in each room. When you walk into a room, your eye should be instantly drawn to one object/area in the space and that object/area should be where you want attention to be drawn. In the bedroom, the focal point is most likely the bed. The table is most likely be the focal point in a dining room.

Keep the floor clear. Obviously, keep stray objects from impeding traffic patterns throughout a room. Also, remove small area rugs and replace them with one larger one, which will make the room/area feel more open because the eye sees a large unbroken space. (In other words, don’t have four area rugs in your television watching space, but one large rug under the couch, chair, media center, and coffee table.)

Avoid having too many conflicting patterns in the same room. Patterns draw attention and if there are numerous patterns, it’s difficult to visually process all of them. For instance, if you have patterned wallpaper, do not have a different pattern on your curtains and another on the carpet and yet another on every cushion on your couch.

Display only small groups of collections. If you have a collection of items, keep what is on display small in number. Either keep the collection small or only display a portion of it each season (and be diligent about switching it out, properly storing what isn’t on display, etc.). This will allow individual objects to stand out because they’re not hidden amongst other pieces. Some interior decorators suggest opting for larger, single pieces because decorative accents that are smaller than a cantaloupe can make a room look cluttered.

If for display purposes only, organize books by decorative elements. It is much easier for the eye to look at straight lines and blocks of colour than zigzag lines and bits of colour here and there. At Unclutterer, we don’t recommend people in small spaces store physical books for purely decorative purposes, but if your home is large and you can properly care for a book collection, size and color organizing will create less visual clutter in your space.

Make labels extremely legible. When making labels to identify the contents of bins or binders, use one, easy-to-read typeface. (Such as: Helvetica, size 20, regular, all caps.) Ensure the labels are the same size and shape and aligned at the same height on the bin or binder. The same rule should apply to labels on file folders in your filing cabinet.

One definition of project clutter

According to the 2007 article “Measuring Visual Clutter,” in the medical Journal of Vision, “clutter is the state in which excess items, or their representation or organization, lead to a degradation of performance at some task.”

This definition implies that clutter depends on a task being performed and is strongly tied to messes made while working on a project. Having too many items for a task will impede performance because the user has to sift through inessential items to obtain useful ones. Conversely, too few items may reduce productivity because the user has to go elsewhere for the items and the task takes more time than necessary.

Project clutter may also be dependent on a person’s level of skill at a particular task. Novices at a particular task may prefer to have only those objects necessary to perform the task from start to completion. Whereas experts at the same task may have items from several projects on their desks at the same time because they are familiar with the processes for each project.

Within families and offices, because project clutter depends upon the task and the users’ expertise, one person’s way of working and their tools may seem like clutter to someone else in the family or office and cause tension. Finding the answers to “How much stuff needs to be out to complete a project and for how long?” can go a long way in resolving these disputes.

Solving project clutter disputes

Begin by planning the project and defining the break points. If you have a large project to be completed that may disrupt normal household or office operations, divide the project into a series of tasks with logical points for taking breaks. For example, if you were making a quilt, cutting fabric into the correct shapes would be one task. If you were re-organizing an office filing system, categorizing the accounting files might be considered one task.

When examining your tasks, estimate the amount of time needed to complete the task and how long it will take you to return the workspace to its original state. For example, when I am preparing our quarterly submission for sales tax reimbursement, it is easier for me to remove the files from the filing cabinet in my husband’s office and stack them on the laundry room counter for the period of time I am working. The counter has lots of room for me to work and my office is beside the laundry room.

I love doing my quarterly tax claim on the spacious laundry room counter and it takes me several hours to complete the paperwork and return all the items to their regular storage area. I schedule this task on an evening when there is very little laundry to be washed or early on a Sunday morning before the counter is used for school homework projects.

It takes a bit of planning when using shared space but it will reduce clutter and improve everyone’s productivity. Talking about these issues with your family members or coworkers before you begin working will give everyone proper expectations and reduce tensions. Finally, working through this process with a child will help him/her to better understand time management, productivity, as well as putting away items when you’re finished using them.

Music and its relationship with organizing and productivity

There have been many studies over the years about the effect of music on productivity in industry. One study has suggested that music increases productivity when workers are engaged in repetitive tasks that may not be intellectually stimulating. The findings of another study show that music has a positive effect on a person’s emotional state and can help with self-motivation.

Dr. Lesiuk of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami carried out a study in which workers could listen to whatever music they liked for as long as they wanted. She found that those people who were reasonably skilled at their jobs realized the most benefit. Workers who were identified as experts saw almost no effect on their productivity and some novices found that listening to music was distracting and did not help them accomplish the tasks (which makes sense as they were acquiring new skills).

In short, music will likely help you and/or your employees be organized and productive. If you have a project you have been putting off for some time or if your task involves repetitive work (such as sorting through clothing), turn up the volume and listen to your favourite music to get you motivated.

However, if your task involves complex decision-making (such as writing a research proposal), you may want to keep your surroundings quiet, especially if the task is something you don’t usually do.

Personally, I find when I listen to dance music with a fast beat (anything from the Big Band Era to Disco to Electronica) my house gets organized and cleaned much faster. When I have a large re-organizing job such as a storage area clean out, I listen to classic rock (Led Zeppelin, Rush, Van Halen, AC/DC). If I’m working on a project that requires my full concentration such as writing or working on data analysis, I don’t listen to music at all because I end up singing to the music and getting distracted from my work.

Most of the time I work from home so I can choose the music I like, but if you share a working space, keep a set of comfortable headphones handy so as not to disturb your co-workers. At the office, always check with your manager or supervisor before you don your headphones. Some companies have policies regarding listening to music during working hours. If you are a manager, consider letting employees listen to music if you find it makes them more productive.

Do you find listening to music helps you be more or less productive? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Situational disorganization, chronic disorganization, and hoarding

There are many forms of disorganization that span from a few things out of place to hoarding disorders. It’s important to understand the complexities of the range so you can identify if you or others may need/want outside assistance. Below, I’ve identified the three types of disorganization that may want or need to seek out assistance from professionals.

Situational disorganization is due to unforeseen events that temporarily change living or working arrangements. Events that may cause one’s life to be situationally disorganized include:

  • Death or severe illness of a family member, friend or co-worker;
  • Marriage, divorce or re-marriage, especially blending families;
  • Birth or adoption of a child;
  • Parent or adult children moving into the home;
  • Change in employment or partner’s employment, either forced or voluntary;
  • A family member or friend is using the home as a storage facility until he/she stabilizes his/her own situation; and
  • Moving into or out of the home or office.

Even though one’s life may never be quite the same afterwards, organization may be restored relatively easily after the event. Based on the situation, an individual may seek the help of a professional organizer to aid in motivation and strategizing, but may be able to handle the situation on one’s own.

Chronic disorganization is disorganization that has had a long history, undermines one’s quality of life on a daily basis, and is constantly present.

According to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, someone may be suffering from chronic disorganization if he/she:

  • Accumulates large quantities of objects, documents, papers or possessions beyond apparent necessity or pleasure
  • Has difficulty parting with things and letting go
  • Has a wide range of interests and many uncompleted projects
  • Needs visual “clues” as reminders to take action
  • Tends to be easily distracted or lose concentration
  • Often has weak time management skills

Chronic disorganization can also be created when people who think or work in an unconventional manner try to use conventional methods of organizing. Although being situationally or chronically disorganized can often result in someone having a hoard of things, it does not classify him/her as a “hoarder”. Similar to situational disorganization, an individual may benefit from working with a professional organizer or may be able to go it alone.

The book Buried in Treasures, indicates compulsive hoarding is thought to be present when all three of the following criteria are met:

  • The person accumulates objects that most people would consider of limited value and the person has a great deal of difficulty parting with those objects;
  • The amount of clutter acquired limits the use of living spaces;
  • The acquiring, owning and discarding of the objects causes considerable stress in the person’s life.

A licensed medical professional usually makes the diagnosis of a hoarding disorder and then prescribes a level of care that can (and almost always) includes working with a professional organizer and an on-going relationship with a licensed medical professional (such as a psychiatrist). Note: As hoarding is a medical disorder requiring on-going care, our website does not provide adequate resources to people with these conditions. Please see the resource section below for sites that can be more helpful.

How can you help someone who is disorganized?

If someone’s chronic disorganization or hoarding issues are affecting your life, it is important to explain how the disorganization affects your relationship with him/her without blaming. Indicate that you are concerned about your relationship with him/her and concerned for his/her well-being. Ask what would be the most effective way you can help in the situation, and please abide by the request.

If you are the person in the situation and you wish to seek outside assistance, you can find professional organizers in your area through the National Association of Professional Organizers and the Institute for Challenging Disorganization‘s directories. If you think you might be a hoarder, begin by talking with your physician. You also can find hoarding resources through the International OCD Foundation.

Regardless of which type of disorganization a person is dealing with, offer encouragement and support. Be compassionate if things don’t go as well as expected and help them celebrate their successes.

Perform a personal audit for 2014 to guide you in 2015

I can hardly believe it’s near the end of December 2014. For my kids, the weeks and days before Christmas are passing at a snail’s pace. For me, the last 12 months have been the blur of an Indy car race. How are we about to flip the calendar onto another year? Speaking of, where exactly are we?

As the new year approaches, many people start thinking about resolutions. I’ve no interest in resolutions. I’ve typically been fueled by reflections on the previous 12 months. And that’s what I’m focused on this year. I’m conducting what I’m calling a personal audit. It starts by asking myself two questions, providing honest answers, and then drawing a plan from the resulting lists.

Question one

Question one is simple: What went well in the past year? My answer is in the form of an unhindered brainstorm. I’ve got a pen and a notebook and I simply list whatever comes to mind. There’s no stopping to think or question each item. I’m simply listing. For example:

  1. Relationships with the kids
  2. The Home Work podcast
  3. Launching Board Games Weekly
  4. Getting healthier
  5. The garden out front

… and so on. When writing this list, I keep going until I can’t think of another thing. It’s important to be honest here and, again, to resist the urge to stop and second guess each item. There will be time to deal with the specifics in a bit. Now, on to the second question, which some of you may have guessed.

Question two

What went poorly? Composing this list follows the same rules as its predecessor: just let it flow. Some highlights from my list:

  1. Finances
  2. Travel
  3. Spending time with family, either in person or on the phone
  4. Spending quality time with my wife, away from the kids (date nights)
  5. Day-to-day productivity
  6. Staying on top of daily chores

Once both questions have been answered thoroughly, I move on to step two: categorization.

Categorize it all

While reviewing the lists, certain groupings become clear: family, finances, health, professional life, travel, learning, and personal organization. These are the areas that saw success, failure, or both. I made these lists because the act of brainstorming and then sorting the results into categories lets me see the areas of life that are important to me. Now, I can make informed goals for next year, as opposed to pie-in-the-sky, out-of-the-blue resolutions like “Be happy.” The following are the goals I’ve created for 2015 based on the personal audit I did of 2014.

Financial: Use budget software regularly. I’ve toyed with You Need A Budget in the past, but not consistently. It’s my fault for losing motivation; the software is excellent. This coming year I’ll be back on track.

Professional: My podcasts are doing nicely. This year I’d like to expand their reach, and attract/increase sponsorship opportunities.

Health: This was hit-and-miss this year. I’ve gotten much healthier than I was six months ago, but there’s still work to do. Getting winded after 15 minutes of kicking a soccer ball around is not fun and honestly, quite embarrassing at 43. This year I’ll continue to eat right, obsess over my Fitbit and increase the amount of walking I do.

Personal organization: I’m great at forgetting to do important things. This year I’ll research and adhere to strategies to make myself more successful in this area.

I’ll continue in this manner until I’ve addressed all items and categories on my lists.


I know what you’re thinking. “Dave, you just created the list of resolutions you denounced at the start of this post.” It can seem that way, but I assure you, I haven’t. It’s all thanks to how I plan to pull off the goals I’ve created. Specifically, I’ll be making projects, actions, and reviews.

Let’s start by defining a project. I use David Allen’s definition: anything that requires more than one action be completed before it’s marked as done. So, “Walk for 30 minutes” isn’t a project, but “Attract podcast sponsors” is. The next step is to identify all of the projects I’ve created, and then to break them down into concrete, observable, measurable action steps. This is crucially important, as it’s how I’m going to:

  1. Define what “done” looks like
  2. Know if I’m making progress
  3. Act and keep moving forward

Define, know, act steps — for each project. If I had nothing else to do in the world but attract podcast sponsors, what’s the first thing I would do? The second? Third? And so on. This is repeated for each project. Next is the good part.

If I were to say, “OK, Dave, hop to it. Here’s your 15 projects for 2015. Go be a better you!” I’d fail in no time. So, my final step is to identify what I’m going to work on in January. And then February, March and April, etc. Finally, I set up regular review days and put them into my calendar. I’ll schedule a reminder during the last week of each month to see how I’m doing and make adjustments.

In short (too late, I know), I’m treating the result of my personal audit like any other project I’d have to complete for work. “Walk 45 minutes per day” gets the same treatment as “Get the Williams proposal on Mr. Johnson’s desk by Friday.” Actions are defined as well as review dates.

Be flexible

What if you do this and you hate it? Change it! It’s your life! As a former boss used to say to me, “Don’t be afraid to abandon the mission.” If it’s not working, make adjustments. Maybe you’ll have to scale back a project or alter the execution plan. That’s fine, and so much better than tossing up your hands and saying “Oh, forget this.”

Finally, and I didn’t do this but it’s a nice idea, you can create metrics to work toward. You can identify the “amount of money in my savings account” or “number of steps walked in a month.” I lump this in with defining what “done” looks like, but you can certainly use this tactic if you want.

I suggest sitting down when you have some quiet time and performing a personal audit. Be completely honest and nonjudgmental with yourself. Organize the results and set clearly-defined, attainable goals from there, as well as regular review periods. Finally, if you’re unhappy with how it’s going, make adjustments. There’s no shame or failure in being proactive and taking steps to make something work for you. Here’s to a fantastic 2015. I hope you all achieve your goals.