Organizing for traffic jams

I live in a small coastal city with only a couple two-lane roads leading into town. On a nice weekend day, traffic on those roads can get very heavy as people head to and from the beach (or the pumpkin farms, in October). And sadly, both of those roads are somewhat twisty and prone to frequent accidents. Even a minor accident with no injuries can cause huge traffic problems.

So I’ve learned to organize for traffic jams, in the following ways:

Plan trips to minimize travel at peak times
Avoiding problems is always nicer than coping with them. I know when traffic will usually be at its worst and plan any discretionary trips to avoid those times.

Leave plenty of time
Sometimes I need to make a trip during a heavy traffic time. Other times there’s roadwork or an accident that makes traffic worse than normal. I check traffic conditions online before I leave home so I can adjust my route if need be. But I also leave lots of extra time if I need to be somewhere at a specific time, so I won’t be stressed out by any unexpected traffic problems. Since this means I often arrive early for a flight, an appointment, or a reservation, I make sure I have a book to read or something else I want to do while I wait.

Have plenty of gas
As part of my emergency preparedness, I aim to always have at least a half tank of gas. This also ensures I’ll be okay if I need to take a more roundabout way home.

Pack the essentials
I always have a water bottle and some energy bars with me so I don’t need to worry about getting thirsty or hungry. And I have a backlog of podcasts loaded to my smartphone to keep me happily occupied while traffic is slow (or stopped). Other people may prefer music, language lessons, or audio books in either CD or digital format.

Use the restroom before heading out
This is self-explanatory.

Have critical phone numbers readily available
I make sure my smartphone has the numbers of everyone I might need to call (while pulled off the road, not while driving) if I’m delayed.

Keep the smartphone fully charged
Since I rely on my phone for communication and entertainment, I need to ensure I don’t run down the battery. I usually leave home with my phone close to 100 percent charged, and I leave it on a charging cable while I’m driving.

Slap on some sunscreen
I’m not as good about this as I should be, but for many daytime car rides it’s wise to put on sunscreen. If the ride is likely to be extended because of traffic, the sunscreen is even more important.

Since I know I’m prepared for being in a traffic jam, I try to not let it bother me too much. There’s nothing I can do about the bad traffic — mentally screaming at it is unproductive, I’ve found — so I consciously get into a “I’ll get there when I get there” mindset.

You don’t need to finish everything you begin

There’s abundant advice, here on Unclutterer and elsewhere, on overcoming procrastination so incomplete work gets finished. But in some circumstances, the best approach might be to forget about completing certain things.

I’m in a book club that’s been meeting for years, and I just finished our latest selection — a book I really enjoyed.

But I haven’t enjoyed all of our choices, and when that happens I just stop reading that month’s book. Fortunately, my book club still welcomes me to attend the meeting, and it’s interesting to hear the different reactions. Even if those who didn’t finish the book were not welcome, I’d still give up on the book. Time is such a precious resource, and I’m not going to spend my limited reading time with a book I’m not enjoying.

If you feel guilty about abandoning a book, it might help to know that some authors quickly give up on books that don’t grab them. Eleanor Brown doesn’t finish about 20 percent of the books she starts. She stops as soon as she’s no longer interested, which could be on page 2 or page 150. John Scalzi writes, “I put down books the instant they bore me.” As Laura Miller notes in a New York Times article, Michael Chabon gives up on books after just a page or two. Myla Goldberg goes a bit further, but still only gives a book 15-20 pages to convince her it’s worth her time.

I make similar choices when it comes to reading news stories. I’ll sometimes begin an article and realize I don’t feel a need to know anything more than what’s in the title, or maybe the first sentence or first paragraph. Or sometimes I begin a long feature article I thought I’d enjoy, but I don’t. In these cases, I stop reading the article and move on.

It’s also fine to give up on a movie, although you’ll want to be considerate of others if you’re watching in a theater rather than at home. (It’s easier to leave if you’re on an aisle than if you’re in the middle of a row.) And you might decide to stop watching a particular TV show or to abandon a weekly show mid-season.

I also see lots of people with partially completed craft projects that got set aside many years ago. When Susan Reimer of The Baltimore Sun asked people about long-unfinished craft projects, she got stories about a dollhouse kit that had been unfinished for 27 years and an unfinished sampler that got moved to eight houses. The same thing can happen with woodworking projects and other such activities.

If the person no longer has any real interest in completing that project, for whatever reason, it makes sense to just let it go. It can be a relief to acknowledge a project is not going to happen and to dispose of the supplies set aside for it by selling, giving away, or repurposing them for more compelling projects.

Tech clutter and cleaning vs. exhaustion

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.

Today I’ll be looking at two questions: tech clutter and the sheer exhaustion of staying on top of it all. Let’s start with the gadgets.

Bailey asked:

…Since [our kitchen] is by the back door [it has become a] landing pad for the cell phones and their chargers, especially for folks who are visual and need the reminder to take it with them…laptops and tablets end up all over the house, becoming visual clutter in the kitchen, dining room, and living room. Any suggestions on how to deal with this?

This drives me crazy, too. With four of us living under one roof, I find phones, the iPad, and our laptops all over the place. When we have houseguests it gets even worse, as cables and devices seem to dangle from every available outlet. To combat this issue, I’ve hit everyone where it hurts: battery life.

We have designated charging areas in our house: a so-called “telephone table” (it used to hold our land-line phone back when we had one) and the bedrooms. That’s it. If a device is not in a designated area, it does not get recharged, as moving cables from outlets is not allowed. The threat of a dead battery is enough to keep the digital clutter confined to one area. Smart planning will go a long way, too.

As human beings, we tend toward the path of least resistance. Use this to your advantage when defining a designated charge zone for your electronic goodies. If people like to enter the house through the kitchen and plop their devices down there, choose that location. There are several great options for DIY charging stations that can accommodate several devices and look great in the process. If you’re willing to sacrifice a drawer, you can make a hidden charging station that:

  1. Is where they like to plop stuff down anyway, so the habit change is minimal,
  2. keeps everything completely out of sight,
  3. is easy to access, and
  4. is very inexpensive and easy to set up.

I hope this helps. After a couple weeks of gentle reminders and some careful consideration, I think you’ll have a solution that everyone can use.

Next, reader Kat asked:

But at the end of [my 12-hour day]…I am utterly pooped. I hire someone to do the dusting and bathrooms and floors, but that creates pressure to have the house decluttered before she comes each week. I have boxes still unpacked in the garage from when we moved 3 years ago, and we can barely get into the garage if we need something from them. I have dealt with high pressure decluttering situations by piling high a laundry basket and hiding it in my walk-in closet – now no one can get into the closet. All the usual culprits — junk drawers, bathroom cupboards, closets, sheds, become repositories of clutter.
While I feel we are coping with day-to-day life flow, I just cannot find a way to break this cycle and find the energy to tackle the big projects like the garage or closets.

I think everyone can empathize with this situation in some way. I’ve been meaning to organize our basement for years. There comes a point when a little project becomes a big one, and a big one becomes an insurmountable monster. The answer for me has been to re-define your definition of a “project.”

“Clean the garage” is a project. But at this point, it has become so intimidating that it’s super easy to avoid. Instead of avoiding it, I’ve broken it down into much smaller projects that are achievable. Perhaps this weekend you can find 30 minutes to sit with a pen and paper and list the categories of items you expect to find in the garage, like yard tools, holiday decorations, sports equipment, etc. When you’re done with that, you’re done. You’ve successfully made progress on the garage.

Next time you have a fifteen minute block of time, plan out what your’e going to do with stuff that you aren’t going to keep. Will you donate it, sell it, give it away, take it to a consignment shop, the town dump, etc.? Again, getting those decisions made is another project completed.

The week after that, dedicate just fifteen minutes to sorting through one type of category of your stuff in the garage (ONLY yard tools or ONLY holiday decorations). Find items that will be thrown away, for example, and then donate/sell/recycle/trash the items that need to be purged. Put the items you wish to keep in a pile or box out of the way for you to organize on another day. After fifteen minutes, you’re done. Another win.

Do this with all your categories of items and then repeat it with organizing and putting away what you’ve planned to keep. It will take you many weeks, maybe months, to get the garage to your ideal, but you will get there. A little work at a time results in an uncluttered and organized garage, which is better than the chaos that is frustrating you now. Baby steps to success.

This is how I deal with the craziness. My wife and I work full time and we’re raising two kids along with Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, ballet, soccer, homework, and on and on. Even in the house, I break things down. “Today I’ll tidy up the mudroom area.” These small victories compound and I get stuff done without exhausting myself even further.

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.

In praise of the digital calendar

Dave has declared his love of the wall calendar, and I agree with the points he made. I also know plenty of other people who work well with either paper wall calendars or planners they carry with them. But a digital calendar works best for me, so I thought I’d provide the other perspective.

I have the advantage of being self-employed (so I have no employer-mandated calendar tools) and there are no other family members that I need to share a calendar with, so I have total freedom to select the calendar that works best for me. I happen to use Apple’s built-in calendar app, but there are many options for those who don’t use Apple products or who don’t like that particular app. Google Calendar, for example, is one that has a lot of fans, partly because it allows you to share a calendar with others.

Why I love my digital calendar

  • Since I can sync my desktop calendar to my smartphone, I always have an up-to-date calendar with me. If a client wants to book a next appointment, I know when I’m free. If the dentist needs to book another appointment, I can do that with confidence, too.
  • It’s always backed up. My normal computer backup tools capture my calendar, so I never need to worry about it being lost (because I left it behind somewhere) or having it destroyed in some kind of disaster.
  • I can do searches on it. If I want to know when I last had my car maintenance done, for example, I can find that out in a matter of seconds. If I want to know when my book club read a specific book, I can find that out, too.
  • I can add more notes than I’d have room for on a paper calendar. For example, I can add airline, hotel, and rental car reservation numbers when I’m traveling. And I can include the URL for an event (even if the URL is very long), letting me link to additional information.
  • I can do color-coding without having to worry about having specially colored pens or highlighters sitting around. For example, I use different colors for work appointments vs. personal appointments, and I find that helpful. I also use different colors for FYI items (such as community events that will cause traffic problems) and events I might want to attend but haven’t committed to.
  • Data entry is simplified. All birthdays are added automatically from my address book. I can add repeating events, such as monthly meetings, so I don’t have to enter them individually. And I can easily move an appointment from one day to another if it gets rescheduled.
  • If I enter the address of an appointment, my calendar will link to the Maps app, making it easy to determine the commute time and to navigate to where I’m going.
  • My printing is pretty good, but I never have to worry about whether or not I can read my writing on a digital calendar. I can also cut and paste information, reducing the chance that I’ll make a mistake.

So consider the pros and cons of both types of calendars, and select the one that works best for you.

Getting Things Done: The 2015 revised edition

David Allen’s Getting Things Done was first published in 2001, and Allen released an updated version in March. So, what has changed?

Long-time fans on GTD will be glad to learn that the fundamentals are the same as they’ve ever been. If you have the original edition, there’s no need to rush to get the new one. However, if you’re buying the book for the first time, you’ll want this new version.

There are a number of small changes, all good:

  • Outdated references to phone slips, faxes, answering machines, Rolodexes, and VCRs are gone. Certainly some people still use these things, but they aren’t as central to most people’s lives as they once were. Now there are references to text messages, mobile devices, and scanners.
  • References to specific computer programs (Lotus Notes, etc.) which were used as examples have been removed.
  • U.S.-specific references have been replaced with more international wording. For example, a reference to U.S. K-1 tax forms has been replaced with the more generic “tax documents.” This K-1 change also illustrates the move away from examples that apply mostly to business executives — not everyone, even in the U.S., will know what a K-1 is. (It’s a form showing income from a partnership.)

But there are more substantial changes, too. There’s a new chapter about GTD and cognitive science, talking about studies that support the GTD methodology. However, I found this chapter to be a slog to read, and the connection to GTD seemed tenuous in some cases (although quite obvious in others).

There’s another new chapter entitled “The Path to GTD Mastery,” where Allen acknowledges that it can take some time for people to get proficient at the GTD basics, much less moving beyond that to his other two levels of proficiency. But here’s the part that caught my eye:

Even if a person has gleaned only a few concepts from this material, or has not implemented the system regularly, it can bring marked improvement. If you “get” nothing more than the two-minute rule, it will be worth its weight in gold.

The two-minute rule, by the way, says that if a task is going to take two minutes or less, you should just do it now rather than adding it to a list. And it was nice to see Allen say something I’ve long believed: You don’t need to do everything the GTD way to get some benefit from the methodology he proposes.

There is also a new glossary and much more discussion about how the GTD processes work in a world where information is increasingly found in digital forms, and where people may work from a coffee shop, not just an office.

But some of my favorite changes were random comments added throughout the book. For example, here’s the new quotation, from Mark Van Doren, which opens the book:

There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can give … our attention to the opportunity before us.

Of course, I noticed what Allen wrote about being organized:

Being organized means nothing more or less than where something is matches what it means to you. If you decide you want to keep something as reference and you put it where your reference material needs to be, that’s organized. If you think you need a reminder about a call you need to make, as long as you put that reminder where you want reminders of phone calls to make, you’re organized.

And here’s his advice on uncluttering (or not):

People often mistake my advice as an advocacy for radical minimalism. On the contrary, if throwing something away is uncomfortable for you, you should keep it. Otherwise you would have attention on the fact that you now don’t have something you might want or need. …

You like having and keeping your twelve boxes of old journals and notes from college? You like keeping all kinds of nutty toys and artwork and gadgets around your office to spur creative thinking? No problem, as long as they are where you want them to be, in the form they’re in, and you have anything you want or need to do about that captured and processed in your system.

Note: There’s a footnote explaining this advice is not intended for those with a hoarding disorder.

While Getting Things Done is still a ponderous read in some places, I think there are enough good ideas that it remains my favorite book on time management.

In praise of the paper wall calendar

I’ve written several articles highlighting the intersection of technology and organization. There are many terrific solutions out there, both simple and complex, to tackle everything from recipes to your draft of the great American novel. Despite all of the advanced technology that’s available to a gadget guy like me, I still love, LOVE my wall-mounted calendar.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived in a house with a calendar on the wall. There have been more varieties than I can remember, but if I try I can recall:

  • Calendars advertising banks, take-out restaurants, and churches.
  • Dunkin Donut calendars that featured a pair of coupons each month.
  • Themed calendars that fit the whims of my siblings and me as we grew up: movies, sports, dance, rock stars, etc.
  • Plain, no-nonsense calendars that were all function and little form.

Today I’m a part of a big, busy family with a lot of moving parts: ballet, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, work, weekend activities and so on. All of these obligations have crafted what I look for in a wall calendar. The following are the particulars:

What I look for in a good paper calendar

  1. Size. It’s no fun to try and cram your handwriting into a teeny, tiny square. I want wide, open spaces that can legibly display several appointments.
  2. Single-page months. What I think of “‘fridge calendars” — 12″ x 14″ when opened — won’t do. The boxes are too small and they’re a pain to hang. In the beginning of the year they’re bottom-heavy and pull magnetic clasps down. In the latter months, all that bulk moves up top, requiring a more ample clip.
  3. Wire hanger. Tear-off calendars tend to get messy. A spiral wire spine is best as it allows you to flip each month away cleanly and easily hang the calendar on a nail, screw, or a hook.
  4. Mini reference calendars. It’s a hassle to flip back/forward to quickly reference a past or future date. I like it when a calendar has at least the previous/forthcoming months presented as mini reference calendars. The whole year is even better.
  5. Eighteen month timeframe. These are made with the school year in mind, which I appreciate.

Why I love paper calendars

Unlike their digital counterparts, paper calendars require no learning curve, are compatible with all my other hardware (pens and eyes), never “go down,” and simply work. They’re the very picture of reliability for my family.

Paper calendars in a digital world

I know what you’re thinking: “Dave, what if you need to reference something when you’re nowhere near your calendar?” Well, that’s a valid question, and I don’t have very good answer. You could, of course, buy a pocket-sized planner to take with you or enter your information into a digital calendar as well (that’s what I do). You could even take a picture of the calendar each day and delete the previous day’s image when you do so. All of these solutions require you to double all of your data entry, and, I’ll admit, that’s not ideal.

But, one thing it does is keep you from committing to a task on the spot. You always have the excuse, “I’ll have to check my calendar and get back to you,” which gives you time to really consider taking on the new obligation. If you do agree to something, you’ll know you are truly willing to take on the additional responsibility.

In case you’re wondering, my ultimate wall calendar is the AT-A-GLANCE Monthly Wall Calendar, Wirebound, 20 x 30 Inch Page Size. It meets all of my criteria and is my absolute favorite.

6 approaches to creating an effective to-do list

Most of us use some sort of to-do list, whether it be a paper one or a digital one. While it’s easy to get fixated on the tool — a notebook and a cool pen, your favorite app, etc. — there are also basic strategies to consider. Just how do you construct and organize your to-do list, using any tool?

The following are some strategies people have used effectively; I’d suggest mixing and matching to find something that works for you. Please note that each strategy has much more to offer than the brief summary I’m providing here; you can read more about any of them, if you’re interested.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology

Fully explaining the GTD methodology takes a whole book; I’m only going to touch on a few key ideas related to to-do lists.

Separate tasks vs. projects. If your list includes a bunch of simple single-step items (call Person A about Subject B, stop at hardware store and buy the items on my list) and a complex multi-step one (remodel the bathroom), can you guess which one will never get done? The answer is to identify the first physical step you’d take on that remodel project, and add it to the task list.

Keep a someday/maybe list for ideas you don’t want to forget, but which you aren’t sure you want to act on — and that you certainly aren’t going to act on right now.

Subdivide tasks by context. Are there tasks that can only be done under certain circumstances, when you have certain tools available? If so, group those together. For example, I’ve grouped things that can be done at home or in town vs. things that can only be done when I’m going further afield.

Don’t assign priorities, because these are fluid. Review your lists at least weekly, but then decide in real time which items are the highest priority. Add any firm dates — deadlines or appointments — to your calendar, but don’t add your other to-do items.

Capture everything you need to do — or think you may want to do — on your lists; empty your mind.

Steven Covey’s Urgent/Important Matrix

Covey explains the urgent/important matrix in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For each task, decide if it’s urgent or not urgent, and important or not important. Try to spend most of your time working on things that are important but not urgent: relationship building, long-term planning, etc.

Various people’s short-list approaches

People who advocate for short lists are not saying you don’t have your long list — just that you don’t focus on that long list every day. Jeff Davidson has a list that’s 12-14 pages, but those are mostly medium-range or long-range activities. The first page is his short-term items, and that’s what he focuses on every day.

Leo Babauta recommends a “Tiny To-do List: one with only three important tasks for today, and perhaps a few smaller and unimportant tasks that you can group together (emails, calls, paperwork, routine stuff).”

Other people recommend short to-do lists that include:

  • The six most important things to do today
  • A 3 + 2 rule: three big things, and two small ones
  • A 1-3-5 rule: One big thing, three medium things, five small things
  • Julie Morgenstern’s “add it up” approach

    In Time Management From the Inside Out, Julie recommends putting a time estimate on each task, so you know when you’re over-committing for your day, your week, etc. You can then decide which tasks to delay, delegate, diminish (scale back), or simply delete from your to-do list entirely.

    Robyn Scott’s melodramatic to-do list

    Robyn organizes her to-do list by emotion. This may or may not appeal to you, but the idea of personalizing your list, including the way you group your items, is a good one.

    Daniel Markovitz’s “living in your calendar” approach

    Daniel says that to-do lists don’t work, and he recommends the exact opposite of David Allen: estimate how long each task will take, and transfer your to-dos off your list and put them in your calendar.

    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.