Getting work done using time blocking techniques

If you’re having trouble getting work done — because you procrastinate, because you lose focus, or because of your perfectionistic tendencies — a time blocking approach to managing your time might help. The Pomodoro Technique, developed back in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, is the best-known approach but certainly not the only one.

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique has you work on a specific task for a 25-minute block, called a Pomodoro, with no interruptions. You set a timer to let you know when each Pomodoro is done. After each Pomodoro, you put a check mark on your log sheet and take a 5-minute break. (You also note how many times you were tempted to break the Pomodoro.) After four Pomodoros, you take a longer break, around 20-30 minutes.

The 5-minute breaks are not meant for anything requiring a lot of brainpower. Getting up and walking around is recommended. You could also do desk exercises or start a load of laundry (if you work at home). The idea is to give your mind a rest.

One thing I really like about this technique is how it gets you to understand how long a task takes, which is very helpful for anything you do repeatedly. Is something a one-Pomodoro task, a two-Pomodoro task, etc.? You may also choose to limit yourself, only allowing a specific number of Pomodoros to complete a task, and thus keeping perfectionistic tendencies at bay.

Fans note that this technique helps them get going on a dreaded task, since deciding to do just one Pomodoro isn’t so intimidating. It helps them stay focused, since they know that doing something like checking social media is off the table until the Pomodoro is done.

Shared Pomodoros

For those working in teams that require a lot of interaction, Pomodoros can be a problem unless everyone starts in unison. If they don’t, team members may never be free at the same time to have discussions. As Ben Northrup wrote, what’s needed in this situation is a “shared Pomodoro.” His project team solved this problem by having two shared Power Hours per day, when everyone agreed to do focused work.

The Rule of 52 and 17

Julia Gifford looked at the data in a time-tracking and productivity app and found that the most productive 10 percent of users worked on average for 52 minutes at a time, and then took a 17-minute break before getting back to work. So if you like the idea of Pomodoros, you may want to play with the times and see what works best for you.

90-minute blocks of work

As Tony Schwartz noted in The New York Times, a study of elite performers (musicians, athletes, chess players, etc.) found they practiced in uninterrupted sessions of no more than 90 minutes. They took breaks between these sessions, and seldom worked for more than four and a half hours every day.

Schwartz said he changed his own writing practice to work in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions. He found that he finished writing his books in less than half the time he took for his previous books, when he worked for 10 hours a day.

While many people can’t work for just four and a half hours each day, this approach may work for those who have more control of their time, especially those who are focusing on building their skills.

Do you use any time blocking technique? If so, please add a comment to let us know what you do and how it’s worked for you.

Is following the news a waste of time?

When we consider how to spend our time, how much time is it reasonable to allocate to keeping up with the news? C.G.P. Grey, one of the two people on the podcast Hello Internet, would argue for almost zero. As he has mentioned on the podcast, he basically ignores the news — he doesn’t watch it on TV, doesn’t read a newspaper, and doesn’t visit online news sites. Rolf Dobelli, writing in The Guardian, also makes a case for ignoring the news. Some of the reasons Grey and Dobelli put forward are:

  • The news is (almost entirely) irrelevant to our lives.
  • News reporting can be inaccurate, much more often than we may suspect. Follow the news on a topic you know well, and you’ll see the inaccuracies. Breaking news is especially prone to error.
  • The news focuses on what will grab the reader or viewer, which is often the most sensationalistic stories. This can lead us to have a distorted picture of the world.
  • The news often does a horrible job of explaining a subject with any complexity.

I tend to read a fair amount of news, and I recently started keeping track of the articles I read so I could see how I was spending my time. My reading tends to fall into the following categories, which I expect will resonate with many others who follow the news:

News that affects what I do, day to day
When the Golden Gate Bridge was closing for a weekend, it was important for me to know about the closure when planning my activities for that weekend. Traffic and weather reports would also fall into this category.

News that inspires action
Sometimes a news story may inspire me to write to my legislators. This means I need to delve into the subject matter in some depth, being sure to choose reliable sources, to ensure I understand the issues. That can be time-consuming, but sometimes it feels worth the investment. The news, pursued in some depth, can also inform how I vote and how I make my charitable donations. On a more trivial level, the news may get me to see a new movie or try out a new restaurant.

News that’s relevant to my work
As a professional organizer, it helps me to know about things such as the new products Ikea is rolling out. Being aware a new book about organizing that’s getting a lot of attention is useful, too.

News that’s relevant to people around me
I live in an area where many people work in technology, including some of my clients, friends, and family members. Therefore, it’s good for me to know about the latest industry news, at least at a high level. So I glance at the latest news about things such as Google Glass and 23andMe’s DNA analysis, to cite two recent examples.

Other subjects are important to me on a more personal level. For example, I know someone who has suffered with Lyme disease, so news about the treatment of Lyme catches my attention.

News that serves as entertainment
Sometimes I’ll read things just because they interest me. For example, I used to live in the Detroit area, and I still follow some of the news about what’s happening there.

And then there are articles by favorite writers — those who both write well and are reliable sources of information. For example, I enjoy the science articles by Ed Yong. (How could I resist Here’s Looking at You, Squid?) In these cases, reading the news serves the same purpose as watching a TV show or reading a novel.

News that everyone will be talking about
Sometimes I pay attention to these stories (often at a very high level) and sometimes I just decide it’s okay to not know what’s going on. For example, about all I knew about a recent championship football game was who won, that the winner came from behind, and that the game went into overtime. When it comes to breaking stories, I try to avoid wasting time on news reports that are purely speculation.

Conclusion: Looking at all this, I’m pretty satisfied with my news reading habits. Is following the news a waste of time? I don’t think so, as long as we make smart, conscious choices about what we read or watch (and the time we spend doing so). Would evaluating your news consumption be a valuable exercise?

Home maintenance

Buying a house is the biggest expense many people make. In order to keep the property’s value from depreciating, regular upkeep is important. Even if you do not own your own home, you may be required to perform specific maintenance tasks as part of your rental agreement.

If you have recently moved to a new area, you may find that some tasks that you may have done in your previous home may not be applicable in the new home or may need to be done at a different time of the year. There also may be tasks you’ve never done that you now have to complete.

The former owners of your home or your landlord may be able to provide you with a list of required maintenance. The staff at your local hardware store may also be able to provide you with beneficial information since they know the area and materials. Your municipality or town council will often provide details on outdoor maintenance such as maximum heights of trees and hedges and during what periods of the year these plants should be trimmed.

Neighbours who have homes of similar age and design can be a valuable resource, too. For example, in one town where we lived, our neighbour told us that we needed to clear leaves and debris to ensure water would flow freely through the culvert under our driveway because if the water started to accumulate, it would cause flooding in our basement. We were very grateful for this information.

It can be hard to keep track of maintenance tasks because many of them are done only once per year. Checklists can help ensure these important jobs are completed. Both Microsoft and The Art of Manliness offer thorough home maintenance checklist templates. You will probably need to modify these checklists for your climate and to suit the type of home you have.

If you need to hire a professional trades person to perform specific services, such as furnace or chimney cleaning, you may find that during certain times of the year it can be almost impossible to get an appointment. Lifehacker provides a Google calendar to which you can subscribe and get reminders of what needs to be done and when. With the Google calendar, you can also add in reminders to book service personnel.

Home appliances, including lawn mowers, snow blowers, barbeques, and automatic garage door openers need maintenance, too. Most instruction/warranty books for your appliances will explain routine maintenance tasks that you can add to your spreadsheet. If you do not have the instruction/warranty book you can usually download it from the manufacturer’s website. It’s also very nice to keep these maintenance records in perpetuity for reference, remembering who serviced items if you used a company and if you were happy with that service, budget planning, and to eventually pass along to the next owner of your home.

Remember to include routine safety and security maintenance to your schedules. Check your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers, emergency escape ladder, and your home alarm system.

One tip for organized travel: leave extra time

Getting to your travel destination can be a frustrating experience, especially during busy times of the year when lots of other people are traveling and joining you on the roads or at the airport. There are lots of apps, websites, and Twitter accounts that can help make travel easier, but my primary travel strategy is simply to leave plenty of spare time, whenever possible. This gives me the best chance of arriving at my destination unfrazzled and ready to go.

Leaving extra time when driving

I live in an area where the two roads out of town are both twisty ones with a single lane in each direction. If there’s an accident on either one, traffic is horrible. On top of that, the area can get ground-hugging fog that makes it difficult to see. Therefore, I learned long ago to leave plenty of extra time if I need to get somewhere by a specific time.

Other people might not have quite the road situation I have, but anyone can be delayed by bad traffic or bad weather. Leaving some contingency time helps ensure those delays don’t cause problems.

Leaving extra time when flying

I get to airports early, partly because I’ve left plenty of spare driving time to allow for problems that usually don’t materialize. But I also like to be prepared for things going wrong at the airport, especially the extra long lines that you sometimes encounter when going through security.

I also like to book connections that aren’t too tight, because flights do get delayed. I check the on-time performance of my possible flights and try to choose those least likely to be delayed, but there’s never any guarantee.

And, when possible, I try to book flights that get me to my destination somewhat earlier than necessary (if there’s a specific event that I’m attending) so that if a flight is delayed or a connection missed, I have a chance to rebook and still get to the event on time.

Using extra airport time productively

As an adult traveling without children, I have it easy. Many airports have free WiFi, so if I have a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone with me, there’s always plenty to do. Sometimes I’ll just use the time for reading: a magazine, a book, or an e-book. Without any of the distractions of home (cats demanding attention, laundry to be done, etc.). I can have a bit of focused time to do some work or enjoy some leisure.

I know others who use spare airport time for exercise, making sure they get their 10,000 steps (or whatever their personal goals are) for the day.

And some airports actually have interesting attractions you can visit. For example, the San Francisco airport has its own museum, with exhibits at every terminal.

For those traveling with children, extra airport time might be used to just move around before the enforced airplane sitting begins. Some airports have play areas to help younger children pass the time.

And, of course, there’s food. I’ll often grab a meal at the airport, or pick up something tasty (and not stinky) to eat on the plane. I’ve used the GateGuru app to help me choose an eatery at an unfamiliar airport.

Staying organized during a deployment or long-term absence

Many types of employment involve travelling and some jobs require extended stays away from home. For a family that is left behind, extended absences can be very difficult. There is an emotional cycle experienced by the spouse/partner that can be nerve-wracking, especially when the emotional distress of children (even pets) is added.

As a military family, we’ve lived through numerous periods when my husband was deployed for several months at a time. The following are a number of ways our family has managed over the years that can be helpful to others in similar situations to stay organized before, during, and after a separation.

Pre-separation

Task assignment: Work together and determine the priority tasks during the separation and who will accomplish these tasks. For example, if the departing partner always ensured the car was serviced, the task may be rescheduled so that it occurs before or after the separation or it could be assigned to the staying-home partner. Contractors could be hired for some tasks such as gardening, pool maintenance, and snow removal.

Contingency plan: Establish plans in case an emergency arises such as an accident or medical emergency. The plan should list whom to call to mind the children or look after pets and how to contact the departing partner. Inform trusted friends, neighbours, and the children’s school of the contingency plan.

Departure

Clear the calendar: A few weeks prior to the separation there may be extra shopping trips to buy last minute items, medical appointments, or business meetings. Avoid taking on additional responsibilities at this time. Examine your calendar and see what non-priority items can be cancelled or rescheduled until after the departure.

Separate stuff: Keep items needed for the departing person separate from the rest of the household goods. This may require the departing person to take over an entire room to ensure all the required items are packed. Keep receipts for any items purchased for the separation in a clearly labelled file. You may be able to claim some expenses through your employer or on your income taxes.

Acknowledge your feelings: During this particularly chaotic time, there may be a lack of organization and a build up of clutter. Recognize this is normal and, as my mother is fond of saying, “This too shall pass.”

Separation

Disorganization: For the staying-home partner, feelings of relief, guilt, and being overwhelmed are common. This emotional turmoil often results in disorganization because decision-making is difficult when feeling these intense emotions. Recognize that these feelings are normal and take steps to get your life back into control. It may be beneficial to call a friend, extended family member, or professional organizer to help you banish the disorganization.

Keep the clutter: The staying-home partner may be very tempted to take advantage of the separation and eliminate the clutter of the travelling partner. DO NOT DO THIS! The staying-home partner has been entrusted with the care and protection of the travelling partner’s goods. To dispose of those goods will undermine the long-term trust of the partnership. If the clutter is truly impairing the effective functioning of the home, communicate with the travelling partner that you will carefully box and label the items and put them in storage. The travelling partner can review and make decisions on the items on his/her return.

Homecoming

Clear the calendar: Just as during the departure preparations, clear time on your calendar for the homecoming preparations. Cancel or reschedule some events to give the travelling partner time to integrate back into the routine. If the travelling partner will be suffering from jet lag, allow him/her at a few days to be fully functional. The returning partner may be required to schedule health appointments or have a few extra business meetings, so allow time for this.

Make a space: The returning partner will need some space to unpack on arrival. Returning items should be cleaned and properly stored or re-integrated into the household. If there is no need for certain items in the foreseeable future, make plans to sell or donate these items. This process may take several weeks. Patience is important.

Task re-assignment: Work together to determine who will accomplish certain tasks now that the partnership has been re-established. Perhaps the travelling partner realized a love of gardening and wishes to continue with that task. The travelling partner may have a renewed interest in preparing foreign cuisine.

Review the clutter: If the staying-home partner packed away items of the travelling partner during the separation, these items should be reviewed. It is best to wait until the travelling partner has had time to adjust to being home and new routines have been established before taking on this task.

The absence of a partner can be stressful, however, by understanding the emotional cycle — and a little bit of planning and organization — the stress can be minimized.

Happy Thanksgiving from Unclutterer

Unclutterer is taking the day off to celebrate Thanksgiving with loved ones. We hope you’re having a great, restful day, too. In the meantime, here are some posts from Thanksgivings past to review at your leisure.

Have a great day and we’ll be back in full swing next week.

Have a great day, folks! We’ll see you next week.

Digital organizing and productivity tools

I’ve been working with a few tech tools lately to improve my organization and productivity. Some are proving themselves to be quite useful, while I’m on the fence with others. Here’s a look at what I’m using lately, both the good and the could-be-good.

Photo management

I’m still years into my search for the perfect digital photo management solution. Today we can take 400 photos as easily as breathing, but the technology for organizing it all has not kept up. My search for the current something that meets my needs has led to Dropbox’s Carousel. When matched with a Dropbox account, the Carousel app automatically uploads your photos to your storage. It’s pretty nice and, in my experience, the uploads are fast. I have the app installed on my phone and on my wife’s phone, so all of the photos we take end up in the same account — no more remembering to text or email photos to each other.

Picturelife is another solution I’m working with. It does auto-upload, too, and offers some unique tools. For one, I love the “Memories” feature. Each morning, I get an email prompting me to review photos I’ve taken on this day from years ago (you can opt out of this if you’re not interested). I find it is a lot of fun to peruse those memories. In fact, Picturelife makes it very easy to find old photos, which is no easy task when you have a contemporary digital library.

Productivity

Bartender is a great little Mac utility that keeps my computer’s menu bar very well organized. The Apple menu bar displays icons that allow quick access to certain applications and utilities. The problem is, I’ve got a lot of those apps installed, and the menu bar becomes a cluttered mess. Bartender lets me display those I use most often, and hide the rest. It’s a great way to keep things tidy and accessible.

Google’s new invite-only email application for iOS and Android devices is named Inbox and it is … interesting. I’ve been using it for about a week and I’m not sure I’m ready to abandon my existing email software. It has some interesting features, like a “pin” that keeps certain messages at the top of your box, and defer options that I’m growing to like. I can tell the app to put a message in front of me on another day or time, when I suspect I’ll have more time or energy to deal with it. The app’s looks aren’t the most straight-forward, and so far that’s the biggest struggle for me. But, it’s still early in its life cycle, so that could change.

Kids

My daughter has been blessed with the same sieve-like brain her father enjoys. Now that she’s in junior high, the casual forgetfulness that she’s gotten away with is becoming increasingly detrimental. So, I’m trying to introduce her to a couple of strategies.

One is a good old notebook. I’m a huge fan, as regular readers know, and I’ve given her one of my beloved Field Notes Brand notebooks and pen to carry around. She’s using it all right, but I wonder if the novelty will wear off. The more you love a tool, the more likely you’ll use it. With that in mind, I turned her to an iPad mini and an app for it.

Remember The Milk is a no-frills, straight-forward task manager that’s compatible with just about every platform you can conceive. I know that she loves that iPad and is highly motivated to play with it, so an app may be her long-lasting solution. A habit takes time to build, and attractive tools will make that more likely.

Are you using any interesting organizing and/or productivity tools lately? Have a suggestion for any of the above categories? Let us know in the comments.

Get organized to run meetings effectively

There are a lot of things I like to do in this world, but running a meeting isn’t one of them. Years ago, I had a boss who would call me into his office and talk for a good half hour. As I walked back to my desk, I’d think, “So, what just happened in there?” Now, when I’m in charge of a meeting, I worry: will my attendees walk away with a clear idea of what was said and what, if anything, needs to be done?

I recently found myself in the unenviable position of sitting at the head of the table, as it were, but not until I had done some research on effective ways to run a meeting. There are a lot of articles out there on the topic, and here I’ve collected the best advice I could find. Now, please come to order and review these tips for running an effective meeting.

WikiHow provided advice that I’ve been advocating for a long time. Partly because of my admitted meeting anxiety, and partly because I really don’t like wasting time. Specifically, determine if a face-to-face meeting is really necessary at all. There are instances when you simply must sit down in the same room to have a conversation or spark collaboration. But, if the agenda is something that can be accomplished with an email thread or a quick conference call, do that instead. You’ll save everyone a lot of time.

They also suggest distributing the meeting’s clear goals in advance. I’ll admit that I’ve never done this. Instead, I hand out a paper agenda as people are sitting down to the table. This throwback behavior from the ’80s is distracting, as everyone sits and reads the paper or thinks ahead to the topic they’re most or least interested in. From now on, I’ll distribute the agenda a day or two ahead of time, so people can show up ready to go.

Forbes also has some great advice for meetings. For example, “spend twice as much time on the agenda as you normally would.” In other words, the clearer and more tightly-defined each item is on the agenda, the more efficient your meeting will be. I also like their suggestion to allot half the time you initially think the meeting will need. “Meetings are like accordions,” says Victor Lipman, “they stretch naturally to fill the allotted space.”

I used a similar trick on myself when I was in college, after learning about Parkinson’s Law, which states: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If a professor told me I had 3 weeks to complete an assignment, I’d tell myself I had two. Otherwise, I knew I’d be at my desk working feverishly on day 20.

Inc. has advice that addresses types of meetings. One type, the Action Meeting, is the format I’m probably most familiar with. The goal is to devise and implement a solution to a pressing problem or outstanding project. One trick I learned from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done is to end each of this type of meeting by saying, “OK, so my next actions are …” Stating this out loud confirms that you are clear on your assignment(s), and that your bosses are clear on that fact, too. Inc. also emphasizes the importance of keeping in touch after the meeting has ended. This is an area that I’ve struggled with in the past. While I’ll make a list of actions that I’ve delegated (my “Waiting For” list), I don’t always follow up with people responsible for these tasks on a regular basis. That’s something I’ll start doing.

Of course, a meeting isn’t restricted to the board room. You might be on a council or committee at your kids’ school or a church. Less formally, you may even have family meetings to discuss finances or monthly schedules or vacations. These lessons may apply there, too. If you have tips for running an effective meeting, let me know. I’m always willing to improve in this area.

Book Review: The Organized Mind

The Organized Mind, by Daniel J. Levitin, is a mixed bag. Some chapters are packed with interesting information, while others are much less compelling. However, I learned enough from this book that I’m definitely glad I read it. The following are some of the key ideas, organized by the book’s chapters.

The first things to get straight

Levitin begins by describing some basics about how the brain works, with a fascinating explanation of why memory is so fallible. There’s also a nice explanation of how our brains handle categorization. Both of these brain traits affect the recommendations he provides later on for getting organized.

Organizing our homes

One principle that Levitin emphasizes again and again is “offloading the information from your brain and into the environment” so you “use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.” Everyone who has ever done something like leaving the library book that needs to be returned next to the car keys has made use of this principle.

One interesting example that Levitin provides is: “If you’re afraid you’ll forget to buy milk on the way home, put an empty milk carton on the seat next to you in the car or in the backpack you carry to work on the subway (a note would do, of course, but the carton is more unusual and so more apt to grab your attention).”

Levitin also emphasizes the importance of putting things away in their designated places, because there’s a special part of our brain dedicated to remembering the spatial location of things. However, the brain is only good at remembering stationary things, not things that move around — so if you put your car keys in a different place every time, your brain is less likely to help you out when you go to find them.

Categorization is also emphasized in the text; since our brains are good at creating categories, using categories well gives us an easy tool for getting organized. Levitin discusses the need to balance category size and category specificity; for example, someone with just a few tools will categorize them very differently than someone with many more. Levitin is also a big fan of the junk drawer for things that simply don’t fit in any category.

Good labels matter, too. As Levitin writes, “A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item. … With mislabeled drawers, you don’t know which ones you can trust and which ones you can’t.”

Levitin also notes that creativity and organization are not antithetical — rather, they go hand in hand. He provides examples from musicians Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, Michael Jackson, and John Lennon to drive home this point.

Organizing our time

You’ve certainly heard this before, but Levitin emphasizes it repeatedly: Brains are not designed for multitasking. “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” The continual shifting “causes the brain to burn through fuel” and depletes the brain of nutrients. There’s also a study that shows that learning new information while multitasking “causes the information to go to the wrong part of the brain.”

Levitin writes that it’s very tempting to continually check email, because handling email appeals to the novelty-seeking portion of the brain, and each response triggers a “shot of dopamine” that makes us want to do more of the same. But we’ll be more productive if we check email a few times a day, rather than every five minutes.

Levitin also provides considerable information on the importance of getting sufficient sleep. You’ve probably heard that before — but if you ignored the advice, this book might convince you that it really does matter.

Organizing the business world

Levitin provides tips to remember when filing: “File things, either electronic or physical, in a way that will allow you to quickly retrieve them. Ask yourself, ‘Where will I look for this when I need it?’ or ‘How can I tag or label this item so that I’ll be able to find it?'”

There’s also some good advice about scheduling meetings. Rather than scheduling meetings back-to-back, give yourself 10 minutes after each meeting to make sure you’ve captured all relevant information. It also helps to have 10 minutes free before any meeting. “Because attention switching is metabolically costly, it’s good neural hygiene for your brain to give it time to switch into the mindset of your next meeting gradually and in a relaxed way.”

Organizing information for the hardest decisions

Anyone dealing with making a major medical decision will find a lot of useful information here about understanding the probabilities associated with each choice, and balancing risk and reward.

When multitasking can be dangerous

In an effort to get more done each day, we’re often tempted to multitask. As Erin has noted before, sometimes this is fine — for example, running a load of laundry while I’m writing this post is unlikely to cause any problems. However, when both tasks require focused attention, multitasking can actually be detrimental to productivity. As Tim Wu wrote in The New Yorker, “The brain is not good at conscious multitasking, or trying to pay active attention to more than one thing at once.”

While this attempted multitasking would usually just make us less efficient, sometimes it can be downright dangerous. The dangers of texting while driving are self-evident, since taking our eyes off the road can’t be a good thing. One study showed that the crash risk when texting was 23 times greater than when not texting. (Another study reported a less drastic figure, with an eight times greater crash risk, but that’s still very high.) Drivers who texted had their eyes off the road for an average of 5 seconds, which is long enough to go the length of a football field for someone driving at 55 miles per hour.

But studies show that talking on a cell phone while driving, even hands-free, is also very dangerous. A white paper from the National Safety Council (PDF) states: “A few states have passed legislation making it illegal to use a handheld cell phone while driving. These laws give the false impression that using a hands-free phone is safe.”

In an 18-minute video, Dr. David Strayer of the University of Utah’s Applied Cognition Lab explains the problems with talking on a cell phone when driving, noting that:

  • Someone talking on a cell phone, hands-free or not, is about four times more likely to be involved in an accident than someone who isn’t using a cell phone. That’s about the same risk level as a person who is driving drunk at a .08 blood alcohol level.
  • Listening to the radio at normal volume levels doesn’t result in impairment. Neither does talking to a passenger. In fact, talking to a single adult passenger actually lowers the crash risk a bit. (David Teater, the senior director of Transportation Initiatives at the National Safety Council, makes this same point in another video.) Passengers will know to stop talking if the driving situation gets difficult, and can serve as a second set of eyes.
  • “Just looking at something doesn’t mean you’ll see it.” When people are talking on cell phones, their attention is diverted from processing traffic-related visual information (pedestrians, cars, traffic signals, etc.) and they “fail to see up to half of the information that they would normally have seen.”
  • People talking on cell phones tend to only look straight ahead, rather than also looking at things in their periphery by using their side mirrors and rear view mirror.

While many U.S. states have restrictions on texting and driving, and some restrict talking on a handheld phone, it’s currently legal in all states for most drivers to talk on the phone hands-free. (Young drivers, novice drivers, and bus drivers are restricted in some states.) However, the studies show it’s a bad idea.

For increased productivity with your work, avoid multitasking when you need focused attention. More importantly, avoid the types of multitasking that can create dangers for yourself and/or others. If you’re driving, pull off the road if you need to make a call or send a text message.

Part 3: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

In my opinion, one of the best parts of kids being in school is that it can bring more routine into their lives and yours. Years of research by social scientists strongly concludes that routines help children adjust better to new situations and also improves the overall happiness of a family. For the school year to run smoothly, routines are a valuable key, and schedules and calendars are a great way to get started creating this practice.

Although it might seem a bit cumbersome, I suggest each family have at minimum a shared calendar and a shared routine schedule. Then, each person in the family will likely want a personal calendar (and maybe even a personal routine) to keep track of things like homework, projects, and personal to-do items.

A family calendar

Whether digital or print, there needs to be a calendar everyone in the family can post items to and review together. In our house, we’re currently using a 17-month Chalkboard Wall Grid Calendar that Paper Source sent to me (it’s pictured at right). I’ve embellished extremely important dates with some Washi Tape, but mostly we just write shared events onto the calendar with a black pen — nothing too fancy or a pain to update.

I also continue to love Martha Stewart’s Chalkboard Paint Wall Calendar, and if we owned our home I would immediately paint this up on a wall. A big visual calendar provides lots of room to write important family events, as well as creates decoration for what might otherwise be a plain wall.

If your kids are older, a shared digital calendar like Google Calendar (great for all mobile devices) or Fantastical (for iPhone) might be a good alternative for you.

The most important parts of keeping a family calendar are 1. remembering to add items to the calendar, and 2. reviewing the calendar each evening so everyone in the family is in-tune with tomorrow’s events. In our house, we add important events to the calendar as they pop up and then review the calendar each night as a family before the kids take their baths. Some families choose to review the calendar during the evening family meal, which is also good for keeping conversations going. The only warning about talking about the calendar at dinner time is if you keep the calendar digitally it means everyone will come to the meal with an electronic device (this is a no-no in our house, but I know it’s not the same for all families).

For more information on calendars, read our in-depth article “Family calendars.”

A family routine

If you’ve read my book Unclutter Your Life in One Week, you know I’m a detailed routine planner listing specific times and tasks to complete each day. Currently, with a toddler at home full time, two adults who work primarily from our home office, and an elementary schooler with a lot of energy and a handful of extracurricular activities, our house would fall into complete disarray if we didn’t keep to such a regimented schedule.

I’ve heard numerous complaints over the years from people saying that routines are dull and kill creativity and fun. I find them to be the exact opposite. Because our family has routines in place for the repeated activities at home, the things that must get done do so without much effort or thought and then leave us free to enjoy ourselves the rest of the time. When we head out to the zoo or a festival or go on vacation, we live purely in those moments. We’re not thinking about dishes or laundry or other things we should be doing — because those things are done or scheduled to be completed at a specific time. Our free time is truly free because our routines make this possible.

I recommend creating a family routine in Excel or a similar grid-style software program. Include all seven days of the week and break down responsibilities to the house by time of day and who will complete the task. For variety, you can switch up who does what on different days, or you may choose to keep the same responsibilities with each person if that is easier for your family. As you crate your routine chart, be realistic about how much you can do and how long tasks take to complete. Time yourself for a number of days to make sure you aren’t underestimating the length of a task.

Our family routine chart includes items like packing lunches, creating weekly meal plans, grocery shopping, feeding and caring for pets, regularly scheduled lessons and appointments, laundry, dishes, chores throughout the house, and even who puts the trash can out on the curb for pickup and who brings it back. We also identify which load of laundry is done each day — clothes on Mondays, towels on Tuesdays, more clothes on Thursdays, and sheets on Fridays.

At the start of each month we review the routine chart as a family and add and subtract and make alterations as necessary. Everyone receives a printed copy of the routine chart on the first day of each month.

For more information on creating routines, read our detailed article “Routines can make even the most unsavory tasks easy” and check out pages 98-99 of my book.

Personal calendars

In addition to the shared family calendar, each person in our home (except for the toddler) has a personal calendar. Our son keeps track of school assignments and violin practice records in his pocket calendar provided by his school. My husband, who loves all things digital, uses Google Calendar. He uses Gmail, so it’s even easier for him to schedule items that come into his inbox because the programs are integrated. I’m a tactile person, so I use the Staples Arc Planner for my appointments and obligations. (And, on the off-chance you’re curious, I use the Emergent Task Planner by David Seah for my to-do list. I have an Arc Planner hole punch, so the pages fit right into my Arc Planner.)

The personal calendars my husband and I keep are primarily full of work-related items, but other activities are included. It can be easy to forget to put family-related items on the family calendar if you also keep a personal calendar, so I recommend scheduling into your daily routines a time to transfer relevant information from your personal calendar to your family calendar. If you keep a digital calendar, this is extremely simple since all you typically have to do is check a box indicating all of the calendars with which you would like to share the appointment.

How do you keep your family on the proverbial “same page”? What routines do you find to be the most helpful? What has worked for your family and what has failed miserably? Thankfully, in our home, we’ve found that the research about routines being beneficial has been accurate. As long as we keep to our routines, life runs much more smoothly than when we don’t. Our home is also at a fairly consistent state of order, which makes having friends over to visit extremely simple and helps to keep our stress levels low.

Small productivity tips with large benefits

The following are four super-simple things you can do in less than five minutes to make a huge improvement in your productivity and efficiency.

First and foremost: disable the alert sound that announces every new email you receive on your computer. This alert sound is such a compelling distraction that it can pull me out of almost anything I’m doing. It’s similar to the sound of a ringing phone — no one can resist it. A lot of people learn to check email at pre-determined intervals (which I recommend), but even just silencing that insistent little beep and checking your email whenever you want will go a long way to reducing distractions and increasing productivity. I killed the beep on my iPhone, too. You can easily turn these notifications back on if the need arises.

A second suggestion and another large improvement for me was eliminating leisure computing after 9:00 p.m. Nothing increases productivity like sleep, and late-night Facebook browsing or tweeting was robbing me of that precious commodity. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy! I’m going to order the book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us by Larry D. Rosen for more insight on this topic. But even my modest efforts have been beneficial, as I’m getting more sleep.

My favorite online calendar is Google Calendar. I’ve been using it for years and I love it. However, I only recently discovered the “Quick Add” feature. Here’s how it works: when creating a new event, click the downward-pointing arrow next to the “Create” button. Then, enter an event that follows the what, where, and when pattern (note that only “what” and “when” are required). For example, “Meeting with Tom at Starbucks on Tuesday 2.15 p.m.” Using natural language is SO much faster than creating an event and filling each field one at a time. How did it take me so long to find this?

Finally, and this is my favorite, install an app launcher. This is a piece of software that, among other things, lets you launch applications with only a stroke of a key or two. I’m a Mac user and I swear by Alfred. LaunchBar is another popular alternative. On the Windows side, consider Launchy. With Alfred, I can open any app by hitting Command-Space and then typing just the first one or two letters of that app’s name. I can’t even measure how much time this saves me throughout the day. All of these programs do a lot more than launch other apps, but this feature alone makes them worth installing. In fact, when I get a new computer, the absolute first thing I do with it is install Alfred.

You can get fancy with your productivity enhancement to great benefit, but remember that sometimes small changes can make huge differences. Share your favorite small tips that reap huge rewards in productivity and efficiency.