It’s perfectly okay to give up on a book

When is it okay to give up on a book? I’ve seen a couple articles on the web addressing this question, but my answer is shorter than those I’ve seen: It’s always okay to give up on a book. Of course there are a few exceptions: if you’re in school and the book is required reading, if your boss is asking everyone to read a specific book, etc. But unless the book is mandatory reading for some reason, you can give up on it any time you like.

You may have some personal guidelines about how many pages you want to read before abandoning a book. But as I’ve noted before, even authors give up on books they don’t enjoy — sometimes very quickly.

Sadie Trombetta wrote an article for the Bustle website entitled 10 Signs You Should Give Up On A Book You’re In The Middle Of (No, Really, It’s OK) and it made me smile because the first reason she lists — you hate the main characters — is exactly why I stopped reading the last selection from my book club. By page two I knew I despised the main character’s best friend, and that meant I didn’t think much of the main character, either. I quit right then, while other members forced themselves to finish the book. Only one person in our book club really enjoyed it. One other person didn’t finish, and she felt guilty about it. But she said she understood, for the first time, my feeling about not wasting time on a book I don’t like.

We all have limited time in our lives for reading, so it makes sense to be judicious in our choices. I don’t mean you have to read serious books — I just mean it makes sense to focus on well-written books that meet your own personal selection criteria. That could include books that amuse you, books that inform you, etc.

Tony Kushner, the playwright, was recently interviewed by Tim Teeman for The Daily Beast website. He said:

I love that line in The Normal Heart (that Felix says to Ned about his books): ‘I think you’re going to have to face the fact you won’t be able to read them all before you die.’

That pairs nicely with something Eric Roston wrote on Twitter:

God, grant me the serenity to accept there’s things I’ve no time to read, time to read the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Sometimes you may pick up a book and then decide it’s just not what you want to read right now, and set it aside for later. But if it’s a book that is never going to excite you, feel free to unclutter your bookshelf and your reading list — and move on to another book that you’ll enjoy more.

Four organizing lessons from Hamilton

I was lucky enough to see a performance of Hamilton last weekend, which was marvelous. How does this relate to organizing? The following are four organizing-related messages I took away from my theater experience and from my post-performance reading about the show.

Experiences are some of the best gifts.

I was lucky enough to receive my ticket as a gift. On Unclutterer we often write about how experiences make some of the best gifts, and this was a great example. That ticket was definitely one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

Uncluttering is always important.

The book Hamilton: The Revolution provides some of the back story regarding the creation of the musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail didn’t cut many songs from Hamilton as it evolved, but there were a few songs that did get removed. As the book noted, “The most common reason for putting a song aside was to keep the audience focused on the story that Lin and Tommy were trying to tell.” For example, a cabinet battle song about slavery “didn’t shed new light on the characters … so the song had to go.”

And on Twitter, Lin-Manuel explained that he cut a song about Washington’s death “because we sing a whole song about him saying goodbye and even though the moment gave us feels, it was redundant.”

If you’re uncluttering your home or office, you can take inspiration from Hamilton and look for items that don’t support what you want to accomplish in your space and items that are superfluous.

You always need tools with you to capture your thoughts.

One of the points that David Allen makes in Getting Things Done is that you never know when you’re going to have an idea worth remembering, and our minds aren’t the best of tools for storing these random thoughts. So you need some kind of tools (paper or electronic) for capturing those thoughts.

I thought about that when reading an article by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker about one of the Hamilton songs:

The refrain of Aaron Burr’s signature song, “Wait for It,” came to him fully formed one evening on the subway. “I was going to a friend’s birthday party in Dumbo,” he says. “I sang the melody into the iPhone, then I went to the guy’s party for fifteen minutes, and wrote the rest of the song on the train back home.”

Making time for both work and family is never easy.

One constant theme in Hamilton is the man’s devotion to his work (and the amazing amount of important work he got done) at the expense of spending time with his family. As Elizabeth Logan wrote on the HuffPost website about the song One Last Time:

Washington tells Hamilton, hey, sometimes it’s good to give up power and go home and be with your family. And Hamilton is like what why would anyone do that.

On the other hand, there’s Hamilton’s wife Eliza, who sings in Non-Stop, “And if your wife could share a fraction of your time …”

Many people struggle to find enough time for both their work and their personal lives. Hamilton doesn’t provide any answers to this dilemma, but it does bring it to your attention in a new way.

When chaos is king

Last week, I wrote about organized chaos and how to work around it. Recently, however, my boss and I were discussing how we always seem to be putting out fires and going from one challenge to another. No matter what we do, we always feel disorganized. We just never have the time to move projects forward or plan events in advance or do anything that an organized successful business should do.

And yet we are an organized successful business.

Every year we grow. We have a reputation of being one of the city’s best companies in the sector to work in. And the ratio of happy to complaining clients is overwhelmingly positive. So, we are doing something right, but despite all the processes and automated solutions we have implemented, we just never seem to have time to do more.

It’s not that we are disorganized. In fact, we are much more organized than most other businesses in our sector. There are just so many last minute issues to resolve that it feels we move forward only by chance.

In looking for a solution to this problem, I found a great article about the impact of being disorganized at work. Unfortunately, we do every single one of these best practices and we still operate in last-minute chaos. Here are some of the good suggestions the article includes:

Time block and leave space for last minute issues: We do that but when a “challenge” absorbs half the day, the rest of the day gets eaten up by daily tasks.

Use task lists: I actually have blocked out all the major and most of the minor tasks that have to happen each year, and yet I miss deadlines all the time and have to scramble to catch up.

Reschedule tasks when you don’t get them done in the assigned block: We also do this, but at some point the task needs to be completed and can’t be rescheduled anymore, which means delaying and rescheduling other tasks.

Plan the whole week on Monday: However, on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, three different crises arise and the nothing gets accomplished.

Hold yourself accountable: We are all accountable to each other at the office but are all in the same challenge-to-challenge mode.

Develop processes for the things that need to be done regularly: I am the king of processes and without them nothing would happen ever. We continue to be successful despite the chaos because of the many processes that have been implemented

The article has more points, but as you can see, the daily challenges seem impossible to conquer. This year we even added a new position to deal with a lot of the crises and yet they still occupy too much time in our calendars.

I don’t yet have a solution and to be honest, I think if I did, I’d become a millionaire because this is a problem that most businesses, especially small service-based ones, face. Small companies can’t throw staff at problems the way large ones can.

There are steps we can and will take to minimize the problem, but sometimes you just have to accept that chaos and disorganization are part of your reality and you have to learn to work around both of them.

What do you do when it seems that due to circumstances beyond your control chaos and disorganization do their best to keep you from achieving your goals?

Do we outsource our memory too much?

Recently I started a new course that’s rather stressful and time-consuming. To prepare for it, at work, I wrote down everything I have to do between now and my August holidays. For Unclutterer, I didn’t do anything because Jacki has a lovely Google Calendar with all our publishing dates. And I informed my husband of when I would need to work on my course so that he wouldn’t feel ignored.

All good things, right? Communication, written task lists, and using sharing technology to its fullest. The height of personal organization.

But then, at work in doing one of my monthly tasks, I left half of it undone. Plus I didn’t go look at Jacki’s calendar and almost missed a publishing date (thanks for reminding me, Jacki). The only thing that didn’t go wrong was my relationship.

I asked myself why that happened.

I began by looking at my task list at work. When I’d written down the monthly task, I wrote down only the information for the first part of the task and nothing about the second. When I relied solely on my memory, I always went through a mental checklist to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Having written it down, I didn’t feel the need to go through that list and didn’t even remember the second part existed and it’s something I’ve been doing monthly for over 3 years!

Then I thought about the calendar and why I didn’t consult it. Lack of habit and assuming that I already knew it. I have to admit that last one is a biggie for me. I get convinced of something so much that I don’t bother checking to make sure that it is true.

This led me to wonder about using lists, relying on memory, or employing technology. Which works best and why?

With smartphones and prior to that day-planners, we have external memory devices around us all the time. No need to actually remember anything, right? But is that lazy of us? Over on Life Hacker, Thorin Klosowski did a personal experiment back in 2012 where he stopped relying on anything other than his brain to remember what he had to do and where he had to go.

To make sure he did everything he needed to, he would walk himself through the day each morning, similar to what I did for my monthly work tasks before making the mistake of half-writing them down. He found the experiment extremely helpful and although he didn’t stick to a brain-only memory prompt, he did decide to rely less on paper and technology.

Fascinated by Klosowski’s experiment, I thought I’d go see what else was out there and found an article in Wired from 2014 that looked at an experiment that tested people’s ability to remember things with or without the ability to write it down first. The results did not support note-taking as a memory tool. Those who relied solely on memory performed better.

“Okay, okay, maybe these are two isolated incidents,” I said to myself. “Let’s see what else is out there.”

Moving up to 2016, Motherboard published an article about how using technology to remember tasks makes it easier to forget them.

The author, Rachel Pick, was in a situation really close to mine — lots of commitments with different dates and requirements and no simple way to merge them all into a single list. She tried a physical planner, but just like me, she forgot to take it with her. She then tried apps, which were either too complex or too restrictive.

She finally tried Google Keep (which I use to remember restaurants in other cities, birthday gift ideas for my husband, and things that we have to take to the cottage). And she liked it, so much so that if something wasn’t written down in the app, it was like it never existed.

Being a curious person, Pick spoke with a neuroscientist to find out why this was happening. What he told her was basically what Klosowski discovered on his own — Pick was outsourcing her memory to Google Keep and was changing the way neurons were firing in her brain.

What was the neuroscientists advice? Rely more on memory and less on tools.

With so many things going on in my life, I can’t rely on just my memory, but what I have to do is start asking myself, “Are you sure that’s all? Are you missing anything?” and go through my mental checklists with paper and technology acting as prompts and light support only.

Making time to read

In the past I’ve sometimes dedicated a blog post to a book I’ve read that I thought would interest Unclutterer readers. But this time I’d like to recommend a reasonably short article in the Harvard Business Review:8 Ways to Read (a Lot) More Books This Year,” by Neil Pasricha.

This isn’t dry academic theory — it’s what Pasricha actually did to increase his annual book-reading rate from five books a year to 50 books last year and probably around 100 books in 2017. And as I read through his list of eight strategies, I could see how the ideas behind them could be applied to forming other new habits and reaching other goals.

The following are a few of the ideas he shared:

Set up the house so it’s easy to grab a book and hard to fall into mindless TV watching

Instead of relying on will power to switch from TV watching to book reading, Pasricha set up his environment to support his goal.

Last year my wife and I moved our sole TV into our dark, unfinished basement and got a bookshelf installed on the wall beside our front door. Now we see it, walk by it, and touch it dozens of times a day. And the TV sits dormant unless the Toronto Blue Jays are in the playoffs or Netflix drops a new season of House of Cards.

Write ongoing short book reviews to share with others

If you write reviews on Goodreads or send out monthly reviews to an email list, you’re making a public commitment to reading — your friends will notice if you stop. To me, this sounds better than just publicly proclaiming on January 1 that you’re going to read a certain number of books that year, because such claims are easily ignored. This is a way of continually celebrating that you’re living up to your personal commitment. And you get to share some cool books with others!

Have no compunctions about quitting a book before you finish it

Pasricha explained his mindset this way:

It’s one thing to quit reading a book and feel bad about it. It’s another to quit a book and feel proud of it. All you have to do is change your mindset. Just say, “Phew! Now I’ve finally ditched this brick to make room for that gem I’m about to read next.”

He also suggested looking at another article: “The Tail End” by Tim Urban. Urban looked at measuring his remaining life in terms of activities and events, figuring he might have about 60 Super Bowls left to watch and 300 books left to read, excluding books he read for work. That 300 figure (or whatever the number is for you) can make it easier to give up on a dud.

Make use of all those little bits of time that are easy to overlook

As Pasricha explained:

In a way, it’s like the 10,000 steps rule. Walk around the grocery store, park at the back of the lot, chase your kids around the house, and bam — 10,000 steps.

It’s the same with reading.

When did I read those five books a year for most of my life? On holidays or during long flights. … When do I read now? All the time. A few pages here. A few pages there.

Nothing that Pasricha did was all that unusual, and much of it is standard advice for anyone trying to build a new habit: make it as easy as possible to do the right thing, make a public commitment, celebrate your successes, etc.

What did seem unusual was how he combined all eight strategies to reach his goal. It’s a good reminder that forming new habits often isn’t easy, so it’s helpful to look at multiple ways to support those new-habit efforts.

One critical time management technique: saying no

As I noted when writing about the pitfalls of time management, some time management strategies are truly helpful. One of those is learning to say “no” at the right time.

Andy Orin at the Lifehacker website asked Jason Fried, the CEO of the software company Basecamp, about his best time-saving shortcut or life hack, and he replied:

Saying no. Techniques and hacks are all about managing what happens when you say yes to too many things.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying yes to too many things. If you find yourself overcommitting on a regular basic, you could use the technique that Ana Menendez wrote about for confronting her mistakes when she was a reporter. When she made a mistake that got into a published story, she was required to complete a form that included this information:

The error:
The correction:
How the error happened:
How I will prevent it from happening again:

When you find yourself overcommitting yet again, reflecting on why this happened and how you’ll prevent it from happening again, could be useful.

Elizabeth Grace Saunders wrote an article entitled “Quitting as a Productivity Tactic” where she recommended dropping some things from your to-do list. I like the two questions she suggested asking yourself: “Does this make me happy? Do I need to do this?”

Some tasks you’ll need to do even if they don’t make you happy, such as filing your tax returns. But you might realize you’re participating in some activities because they were enjoyable in the past, but no longer are. Or you may find things that you started doing because you thought they were important, but now you can see they really aren’t.

But sometimes you may need to make some difficult choices and eliminate things that you really do enjoy. As Leo Babauta explained on his blog, Zen Habits:

You might have to say No to certain work projects, or community groups, or committees or boards or parent-teacher organizations or coaching sports or some other worthwhile activity.

I know, it seems horrible to say No when these are very worthy things to do. It kills you to say No.

But the alternative is that you’re going to do a bad job at each one, and be stressed beyond your limits, and not be able to focus on any one. …

Saying No to worthwhile projects, and letting go of the idea that we can do everything, is very difficult. But it’s not more difficult than trying to do everything and not getting enough sleep and being overly stressed out. Saying No is hard, but it means you say Yes to focus and sanity.

When you’re organizing stuff, you’re aware of the physical limitations. There’s only so much that can be fit into a closet, cabinet, or garage. If there’s too much stuff for the given space, it’s time to unclutter. Similarly, you can’t fit 28 hours of activities into a 24-hour day. So you may need to unclutter your schedule and to-do list by saying no to some things. As with any uncluttering, that can be challenging — but you’ll almost certainly feel much better when you’re done.

The pitfalls of time management

Is time management an idea that’s been oversold? Oliver Burkeman recently wrote an article in The Guardian entitled “Why time management is ruining our lives,” which raised a number of interesting points.

Burkeman doesn’t seem to be writing about all time management strategies, but rather the obsession with productivity and getting as much done as possible in any given day, week, month, or year. One problem: When you get incredibly efficient, cramming ever more things into each day, you lose the slack time which allows new, creative ideas to emerge.

Slack time also allows you to respond to unanticipated demands on your time. Burkeman wrote about how this plays out in the workplace and the doctor’s office (where that doctor’s focus on efficiency may cause you to wait way past your appointment time when an earlier appointment runs long). But the same need to deal with the unexpected can happen to any of us. I recently had a dear friend who was facing some medical issues, and I was glad that my schedule was not fully booked so I could readily be there to help her.

Burkeman used the Inbox Zero approach to dealing with email as a specific example of a time management strategy that doesn’t always help the people who implement it. He wrote:

My own dismaying experience with Inbox Zero was that becoming hyper-efficient at processing email meant I ended up getting more email: after all, it’s often the case that replying to a message generates a reply to that reply, and so on. (By contrast, negligent emailers often discover that forgetting to reply brings certain advantages: people find alternative solutions to the problems they were nagging you to solve, or the looming crisis they were emailing about never occurs.)

For another critique of Inbox Zero, Burkeman pointed to an article by Sara Stewart in the New York Post, which begins as follows:

It’s happened to me more than once lately: A friend sees the glaring red number on my iPhone’s email icon (2,052, if you must know) and their eyes do that cartoon thing where they bungee out of their sockets. “How do you live?” they’ll ask in a horrified whisper. “I could never stand to see that every day.”

Really? Because to me, that little number represents the freedom I feel from the compulsion to check and erase, check and erase, like a rat in a lab experiment, all day, every day. …

I’d like to suggest an alternative: Inbox Whatever. As in, who cares?

But more than anything, these sentences in Burkeman’s article are what resonated with me:

We might try to get more comfortable with not being as efficient as possible — with declining certain opportunities, disappointing certain people, and letting certain tasks go undone. Plenty of unpleasant chores are essential to survival. But others are not — we have just been conditioned to assume that they are. It isn’t compulsory to earn more money, achieve more goals, realise our potential on every dimension, or fit more in.

I certainly want to be reasonably productive so I earn a decent living, serve my clients well, maintain key friendships, give back to my community, etc. But I’ve also decided that I’m not going to try to be a super-achiever, so I can also have time for things like lazing around in bed with my cats on a stormy winter day.

At times we may all need to be that super-achiever for various reasons, and get as much done as possible. But it’s worth stepping back every once in a while to make sure we’re still making time management choices that work well for us.

Time management and cognitive biases

Cognitive bias is a term used to describe some ways our brains can lead us to make poor decisions. Dr. Travis Bradberry explained it this way: “Cognitive bias is the tendency to make irrational judgments in consistent patterns.”

Wikipedia lists 175 such biases, which is hard to get your mind around. Buster Benson decided he wanted to understand these biases better, so he created his Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet, which condenses those 175 biases into a 20-item list. As I read through that list, I realized at least two of the biases can affect your time management.

Bias: In order to get anything done, we’re motivated to complete things that we’ve already invested time and energy in. The behavioral economist’s version of Newton’s first law of motion: an object in motion stays in motion. This helps us finish things, even if we come across more and more reasons to give up.

This way of thinking can be very useful if you’re working on something important: creating an emergency preparedness kit, for example. But it can also trick you into spending time on things when giving up might be a better option.

The “sunk cost fallacy” fits into this category — that’s the thinking can cause you to hold onto a bad purchase because the item was expensive. The money is gone, whether or not you keep the purchased item. Michael Davidson, writing on the Lifehack website, gave an example of how this same way of thinking can get applied to time, not just money:

“I might as well keep watching this terrible movie because I’ve watched an hour of it already.”

Or reading a terrible book that you are 100 pages into, or continuing a T.V. series on Netflix that has gone downhill, etc.

It doesn’t matter that you’ve already invested time into whatever media you are consuming. If you don’t like the movie, you can walk out of it.

Here’s another example: I’ve had ideas for blog posts here on Unclutterer that just didn’t work out. No matter how much time I had already spent on writing them, at some point I needed to realize the ideas just weren’t as good as I had thought, and move onto other ideas before I wasted any more time. But that can sure be hard to do!

Bias: We favor options that appear simple or that have more complete information over more complex, ambiguous options. We’d rather do the quick, simple thing than the important complicated thing, even if the important complicated thing is ultimately a better use of time and energy.

Information bias falls into this category: “Believing that the more information that can be acquired to make a decision, the better, even if that extra information is irrelevant for the decision.”

I thought about this as I sat with my long California ballot, with 18 propositions and a number of local elections. I tend to want to learn as much as possible about the issues so I can make an informed choice. But in some cases, I’ve realized, I don’t need every bit of information I could potentially gather. Sometimes the candidates’ stands on a few key issues tell me all I really need to know — I don’t need to understand the details of their positions on every last thing.

Other times you just need accept that you can’t get perfect information and become comfortable with the ambiguity. When I needed to replace my year-old printer that stopped working, there was no obvious best choice. But in order to have a functional printer again I needed to make the best decision I could, without taking forever to decide.

Understanding these cognitive biases helps you realize when you’re falling into their traps, so you can make other decisions and use your time more productively.

Finding the schedule that works best for you

Few of us can have complete control over our daily schedules. Work and family obligations, doctor appointments, and various other things will often dictate where we must be at certain times and what we must be doing.

But when there is a chance to make scheduling choices, it’s helpful to recognize when you’re at your best for certain activities (creative work, exercise, etc.) and then build your schedule based on that knowledge.

Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics, wrote in an “Ask Me Anything” on the Reddit website:

Your “productive hours” are very important. Think about when those are, and then practice maniacal devotion to work during those hours. …

One of the saddest mistakes in time management is the propensity of people to spend the two most productive hours of their day on things that don’t require high cognitive capacity (like social media). If we could salvage those precious hours, most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want.

Ariely wrote that those two most productive hours are usually in the morning — the first two hours after you’re fully awake. But people are different, and being aware of what works best for you is what’s key.

A number of people find that starting the day early makes them more productive, and some of them start their days very early, indeed. Hilary Potkewitz had a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about people who choose to wake up around 4 a.m. For example:

Peter Shankman, a 44-year-old entrepreneur and speaker based in New York City, is usually out of bed a few minutes after 4 a.m. Twice a week he meets a buddy for a 10-mile run in the dark around lower Manhattan.

The city’s streets are usually deserted, providing a nearly distraction-free space for thinking. “If I’m busy dodging people or noticing who’s passing me, my ideas won’t come,” Mr. Shankman says.

By 7 a.m., he claims he is “showered, fed, watered and sitting at his desk.” …

The flip side is that he is in bed by 8:30 p.m.

Others find they function better later in the day. On the Lifehacker website, night owl Mike Vardy wrote:

As someone who does a lot of writing, I have found that I’m at my best in a creative sense later in the day, once all of my essential actions and errands have been taken care of. I call it my “Finally Time” — I finally have the clarity of thought, quiet I need and time I want to get my great work done.

That’s my own preferred schedule which is why I’m writing this post around midnight. I also find that trying to exercise early in the day just doesn’t work for me, so I’ve given up trying to force fit myself into that kind of schedule.

Some people work best by breaking up their day. YouTube creator and podcaster CGP Grey has found that afternoon is his worst time for getting his writing done, so he does that work in the morning (starting quite early) and the evening, taking the afternoon off. Such a schedule is obviously much easier to implement when you’re self-employed, but even people who have that flexibility might hesitate to stray so far from the normal workday pattern. But if an unusual schedule works better for you, why not go for it?

Being more productive by hiring some help

Unclutterer received an email from a reader who had a number of questions, many of which related to hiring people to help with various tasks. There are many reasons you might want to hire some help:

  • You may need to hire help to do things you physically can’t do yourself. I had this situation when I first came home after my hip surgery and had many movement restrictions. I needed someone to come in weekly to do the laundry, vacuum the floors, and run some errands.
  • You may need to hire help with specific expertise that you don’t have. For example, many people hire someone to do their tax returns.
  • You may want to offload time-consuming tasks that you don’t enjoy to free up time for other things that are more important to you.

And sometimes you may want to hire someone for more than one of these reasons. The only ongoing help I have is with my yard. My gardener knows much more about plant care than I do. She can readily climb a ladder to trim tall plants while that would make me uncomfortable. And I just don’t enjoy most gardening work and tend to put it off until it becomes problematic.

How do you best go about hiring the help you need? The following are some suggestions.

Define exactly what you want the person to do

Make sure your expectations are as clear as possible. This will mean writing things down, spending time explaining things verbally, or both. All the things you do by second nature will need to be specified. For example, when I hired household help I had to tell the person how my washing machine worked, what settings I used, how much detergent I used, etc.

Also determine what things you don’t care about. My home helper asked how I wanted my non-slip socks paired up and put away, and I told her to do it any way she liked.

If you make tasks as easy as possible for your helper, things will go more smoothly. When I sent my helper grocery shopping (with a list that included brand names and package sizes), it helped when I could tell her where in the store things were located, especially those that weren’t obvious. I also made sure she had my cell phone number so she could send me a text if she had any questions. If someone is going to unload your dishwasher, put away laundry, or otherwise tidy up, you may want to label the cabinets and closets indicating what goes where.

If someone is working on a project for you, make sure your communication expectations are clear. What kind of status updates do you want, and how often should they be provided? How quick of a response do you expect to calls, texts, or emails?

When relevant, be sure you’re clear about what supplies you’ll provide vs. what supplies the helper will provide. If the helper is providing things like cleaning supplies, do you have any restrictions on what products are used?

And be sure you’re clear about pricing and billing. If there’s an hourly or weekly rate, what’s included and what’s extra? Billing surprises are no fun for anyone!

Sometimes you may not know the specifics of what you need done, since you are hiring help to fill in for your lack of expertise. But even then you probably have some expectations you can define. For example, my gardener knows that I need to keep all plants from touching my house to minimize the risk of termites.

Consider your hiring options

Nolo has a helpful article about hiring household help. As the article explains, you can hire a company, hire a worker through an agency, or hire an individual. I got my home helpers through a company, while I hired my gardener directly.

And be sure you understand the legal aspects of your hiring decisions, including tax and insurance issues. Again, Nolo explains the basics, and you can consult a lawyer for more information.

Don’t be afraid to make course corrections

If you failed to specify some of your expectations (which can easily happen when you first set about hiring help) and now the work isn’t being done as you would like, talk with your helper about making changes. Sometimes just a tiny change can make a big difference.

If the change is too significant and you realize you and your helper are a mismatch, you may want to find someone better suited to your redefined needs. An ongoing mismatch may well make both you and your helper miserable, so ending the relationship can be best for all concerned.

Managing the overwhelmed feeling

I recently read an article in The Onion that, while satire, seemed very close to reality. The whole thing is worth a read, but the following is an excerpt:

Local man Marshall Platt, 34, came tantalizingly close to kicking back and having a good time while attending a friend’s barbeque last night before remembering each and every one of his professional and personal obligations, backyard sources confirmed.

While cracking open his second beer as he chatted with friends over a relaxed outdoor meal, Platt was reportedly seconds away from letting go and enjoying himself when he was suddenly crushed by the full weight of work emails that still needed to be dealt with, looming deadlines for projects that would take a great deal of time and energy to complete, an upcoming wedding he had yet to buy airfare for because of an unresolved issue with his Southwest Rapid Rewards account, and phone calls that needed to be returned. …

According to sources, Platt tried to put his responsibility-laden thoughts out of his mind and loosen up by opening another beer but suddenly remembered a magazine subscription that needed to be renewed by Friday, a medical bill he thought might now be overdue, and the fact that he needed to do laundry by tonight or he would run out of clean socks and underwear.

Many people get this overwhelmed feeling at times. The following are some strategies for dealing with it:

Get everything out of your head and onto a list

That could be a paper to-do list, a collection of sticky notes, a computer file, or a list within an app. You could create multiple lists (as the Getting Things Done methodology would promote) or a single list. But one way or another, have one or more lists that capture all those thoughts about obligations. Just creating a physical or digital list removes some of the stress — you no longer have to keep a mental list and worry about forgetting things — and it gives you a starting point for taking control of your situation and moving forward.

Prioritize by pretending you’re going on vacation

Many of us, as we prepare for vacation, suddenly get very clear about what must be done now vs. what can be put off until later — and the quickest way to deal with things. In the case of the imaginary Marshall, paying the medical bill and doing laundry would jump to the top of the list. But some emails probably don’t need an immediate reply, and those that do need a reply can perhaps get by with a couple sentences rather than five paragraphs. Instead of making an after-work trip to Bed Bath and Beyond for linens (another part of that Onion scenario), maybe buying online would be quicker and less stressful.

Renegotiate deadlines when necessary

If looming project deadlines seem next to impossible to meet, talk with the appropriate people (your boss, your client, etc.) to develop a new plan. Maybe there’s some flexibility in those deadlines. Maybe the scope of the projects can be changed. Maybe someone else can take over some of your non-project tasks to give you more project time.

Focus on the one thing you’re doing now

I remember going into a panic at one of my first jobs because I had so much to do. My wise boss helped me determine what needed to be done first, and then he had me clear my desk of everything not related to that one task. And it worked! I went through my many tasks one at a time, in priority order, focused each time on a single task. And everything got done just fine.

Remember that fun things can be priorities, too

Taking time to go a friend’s barbeque can be just as important as other things on your list. And if you’ve created your to-do list, set priorities, and renegotiated deadlines as necessary, you should be able to truly enjoy some time just having fun.

A straightforward seven-step process to achieve your goals

This coming weekend will mark a first for me: I’m competing in a sprint triathlon. As with any activity requiring preparation (moving, changing jobs, going away to school), there has been a great deal of planning and organizing involved to get ready for the race. When I made the decision to work toward this goal back in January, I felt like a project manager as I tried to figure out how to get to where I am today. Ultimately, I decided to use a basic, seven-step process to reach my goal.

To give you an idea of where I was before I decided to take on this project, I didn’t know how to swim. I could float around and not drown, but I didn’t know how to swim laps or do any proper strokes. I’d also never been on a racing bike, and the only bike in my garage was my two-year-old daughter’s, complete with training wheels. I couldn’t run a mile continuously and the idea of swimming, biking, and running back-to-back-to-back genuinely terrified me. I needed skills, gear, training, and confidence.

The first step in the planning process for this triathlon was the same as it is for any project: research and gather information. I read The Triathlete’s Training Bible, Triathlon Anatomy, and a couple more books. I jumped on YouTube and watched videos from races. I learned about all the equipment I’d need (swim goggles, a racing bike, fast-drying triathlon clothing, gym membership, running shoes …) and put together a rough estimate of how much it would cost and how much race expenses would be (hotel, travel, race registration). I extensively studied dietary needs for athletes. This is also the point where I saw my doctor for a physical and underwent other forms of athletic testing (anaerobic threshold, body fat and lean mass analysis, etc.) with a triathlon coach to learn as much as I could about my body.

The second step in the planning process was to evaluate the gathered information and decide if I wanted to proceed toward the goal as anticipated. In a typical project, this step might include changing the goal or moving the completion date or deciding if you need to bring in additional resources before continuing. You look at the information gathered and analyze it to see if you can achieve your goal. For me, the decision was much more personal in nature. I have a genetic disorder that makes competing in triathlons not the best idea I’ve ever had. My disability doesn’t prohibit me from doing a triathlon, but it certainly makes things more complicated. So, I had to decide if I wanted to continue knowing the risks and my limitations. I decided to continue, but I also had to agree to do everything I possibly could to reduce my risk of injury and complications.

The third step is mostly complete after the research stage, but it’s important to create an official budget for the project. No matter the project, be sure to build in a line item for unexpected expenses. Then, maybe, triple that line item. (I forgot I’d have to pay for childcare, for example.)

The fourth step is a lot of people’s favorite step: create timelines and to-do lists. This is the point where you identify what needs to get done, by whom, and when. As I previously mentioned, I needed to take lessons on how to swim and how to ride a racing bike. I had to weight train and build endurance. I also needed to overhaul my diet so I wouldn’t do damage to my body, which meant months of meal planning. I created milestones and points where I would check-in with my coach (for a work project, this would be where you check in with your client) and points to evaluate how my training was going so I could make changes, if necessary, as I progressed. Be specific during this step — swim 30 laps, pack two boxes, sort through one dresser drawer, write 1,500 words — so that it is clear to you each day when you look at your calendar exactly what you need to do.

The fifth step is the hardest and (typically) the longest: do the work every day. Once everything is in place, it’s time to get your hands dirty. This is when you crank the widgets. I joined a gym with a pool. I bought a racing bike. Some days I was up at 5:00 a.m. for swim classes. Other days it was raining or freezing or extremely hot and training was the last thing I wanted to do, but if I wanted to reach my goal I had to do it. You write the code or build the house or pack all your belongings into boxes.

The sixth step I have yet to complete on this project, but it’s my favorite step in the process: complete your goal. For me, this will be Saturday when I (hopefully) cross the finish line.

The seventh step is the final one and often the most overlooked: evaluate your performance. Once a project is finished, it is tempting to move on to the next project without taking the time to identify what went right, what didn’t, and your final expenses and time sheets. But doing so will help you in the future — the next time you move or build a website for a client or compete in a triathlon. This information will be a valuable resource to you in the future, so take the time to complete this step and help your future self. You won’t regret it.

All of these steps are intuitive, but that doesn’t mean you won’t want to rush ahead to start with step four before doing steps one through three. Or be so happy to be finished with step six that you skip step seven. Do all of these steps and you’ll be well on your way to achieving your goals. Taking on a large project also can create anxiety, but breaking it down and going through this process will help you to see that your goal can be reached.