Celebrating success: a Bullet Journal experiment update

It’s not the prettiest Journal, but it works.

The first two weeks of September are always the busiest in my day job and usually I get to launch day exhausted, facing a hundred little crises, and with a knot in my stomach because I have not had time to complete some really important tasks.

This year, however, everything has gone as smooth as silk and I have to attribute the success to my use of my Bullet Journal. Of course, every year, I make to-do lists, but always in a haphazard manner on a variety of different pieces of paper and/or computer files and emails.

I also managed to be productive in my personal life as well. Remember how I made the decision to be purposeful about my choices in life? Well, that has extended into this crazy period of the year, and despite ten and twelve hour days at work, I’ve been in better and more meaningful touch with my husband and friends than I’ve been in years.

I can’t pinpoint exactly why the Bullet Journal has produced different results, but I do have a few ideas.

  • Part of it is because I knew I was using it as an experiment here on Unclutterer, so I never let a day pass without updating the Journal.
  • By giving work and personal life tasks and thoughts equal priority, one never took over the other. And success in one area motivated me and encouraged success in the other.
  • I hate rigid rules and the rebellious teenager in me always wants to break them, so having been told right from the start that “rules” for Bullet Journaling are meant to be broken, my inner-teen never needed to rebel.

The system isn’t perfect, of course. Now that I write everything down, if it’s not in the Journal, it doesn’t happen. For example, in preparing to go down to our apartment in La Rioja last Friday, I reminded myself to take the house keys off their hook and leave them out where I could see them, but I didn’t write it down. Did I forget my set of keys? You bet I did!

The index is useless for me. I know I am never going to go back to review things. My lists and thoughts are “in the moment” things. Once completed, I move on. In my next Journal, the index will disappear.

The Future Planning portion makes no sense to me. I prefer to have a section with the whole year divided into months so that the planning can go there (one side of the page with the days of the month and the other with notes).

I also have added a section. This Monday, I created a weekly calendar that went before this week’s lists. It helped me organize my time in such a way that I didn’t forget a single appointment and I managed to squeeze in free-time and relaxation before the week’s craziness took over.

The organized teacher: three teachers offer advice

As we approach the new school year, organizing gets imperative, not just for families (books, clothes, schedules, and extracurricular activities) but also for teachers. When I was a child, I never once thought about all the work that goes into being ready for September and the start of school. Teachers had two months off, just like I did and they came back to class the same day I did.

But we all know that’s not at all true. As with any project, being well organized before starting can mean the difference between success and disaster and it’s the same for teachers starting a new school year.

How do teachers organize themselves? Is it any different from any other job?

I interviewed three different head teachers, one from Canada, one from the U.K. and one from the U.S.A. And no, being an organized teacher is no different than working in any other service industry.

From what these three teachers told me, there are three areas of organization that teachers need to consider:

  • Use of space – the classroom, paper storage, seating plans, and so on.
  • Personal preparedness – finding the right balance of planning but not over-planning, of learning new things but not obsessing, of using planners versus “winging it”.
  • The needs of students – who they are, what mix of personalities, genders, ages, and abilities they have, how the students did the previous year, and what needs to be reviewed or re-taught.

Use of space

Before starting the school year, our U.K. teacher suggests that together the teachers at a school should:

check and clear the school of any accrued mess to ensure the school feels tidy and organised before we open the door – if the school is tidy, the children are likely to keep it tidy.

The Canadian teacher reminds teachers to:

Throw things out! Teachers cling to paper and stuff! Purge! Keep a file on the computer and get rid of everything else.

Finally, the U.K. teacher also reminds us that daily maintenance keeps papers from overwhelming us:

Tidy each day! Tidy the classroom so it’s prepped for the next day. File away paper and keep your mind tidy and on the job at hand.

Personal preparedness

For all three teachers, planning is imperative, but they all also insist that over-planning is paralyzing and counter-productive.

Our U.S. teacher has this new school year routine:

I like to take a glimpse at the curriculum for the year and see the material that will be covered. Based on the level, I like to prepare a short review at the beginning of the school year, based on the previous material covered to help them ease into the new school year.

The Canadian does something similar:

Depending on what I’m teaching I generally plan out the course, first the big stuff, then break that down. If its a course I’ve taught before, I think about what worked well, what worked OK, and what didn’t work at all. I also like to to change things up (so I don’t get bored) If I have read/learned something new, I think of ways to incorporate it.

An the U.K. teacher suggests getting others involved:

My advice is to prioritise what needs to be done and park desirables until you have a clear plan. Use the human resources around you. People generally want to be involved and including them in the thinking and the journey will help in organisation. They might even come up with a better idea. Talking is the key!

When it comes to over-planning, the Canadian teacher believe that teachers should be careful not to waste too much time. “Sometimes things go off course so be prepared for that. Also lots of teachers waste time with detailed busy work, creating forms, binders, labels, etc. that make more work for no reason.”

The U.K. teachers reminds us as well that all too often “teachers spend too much time prepping, planning before they really know the class. It’s great to be prepared but there’s no point teaching children what they already know. Plan the first few lessons and then asses what’s needed.”

The Canadian teacher offers a good list of basic planning activities:

  • Familiarize yourself with the course outlines, expectations, and assessments.
  • Use a calendar for unit plans and due dates.
  • Colour code courses (it helps to visualize).
  • Make a note of important due dates like when report card marks are due (you would be surprised how many people are caught off guard).
  • Don’t take on too many things too fast. It’s really easy to get overwhelmed.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

The needs of students

Our U.S. teacher really focused on this area, as did the U.K. teacher. They both insist on getting to know the students and working with the rest of the school’s staff to set individual learning targets where possible before diving into too much organizing. The U.S. teacher will even “go over class lists and see what my classes look like: student numbers, total class size, and gender. This helps me for organizing the class and seating charts.”

She also talks about the need to establish rules the first day of class.

Do not assume they just know how to act. All teachers are different and have different levels of what they will tolerate so communication between teacher and students is important.

Finally, she makes what I believe is the most important point that teachers need to remember:

What is important is to establish is an atmosphere of mutual respect where students feel comfortable in expressing themselves in class amongst their peers and with the educator. Teachers need to remember we are not there to make friends; we are there to educate and help in the students’ growth in the content and be good citizens as well.

For those readers who are teachers, does this advice sound familiar? Is there anything you would add? And for those who aren’t teachers, how might the ideas offered by these teachers apply in your job?

How to remember future to-do tasks

While you may have a system for tracking normal to-do items, how do you remember to-dos that are many years in the future? The following are a few examples:

  • I recently read a FEMA document (PDF) that said smoke alarms should be replaced ten years from the date of manufacture. How do you remember to do that?
  • I just updated my will and trust, ten years after I first created them. How do you remember to review these documents and make updates as necessary?
  • I had hip replacement surgery in May 2016. All’s well, and now I don’t need to see my surgeon again for a follow-up until May 2020. How do I remember to make that appointment?

Sometimes a reminder comes indirectly. When one of the people I had named as an executor of my will moved out of the area, it reminded me that I needed to update my legal documents. While I was removing her name, I found other updates I wanted to make, too.

And in some cases, you’re likely to get a reminder from the related service provider. My lawyer sends me annual reminders to review my legal documents, and my surgeon’s office will remind me I need to schedule an appointment with him. But these follow-up systems are fallible, and I like to have my own reminders in place.

Since I use an online calendar that goes out for many years, my first inclination is always to put critical future events such as the doctor appointment on my calendar as soon as I become aware of the need. I have an item on April 15, 2020 to schedule that appointment for mid-May. When I get the smoke detector down from the ceiling to see when it was made, I’ll add the replacement date to my calendar. I also added a recurring annual item to review my legal documents.

Alternatively, there are all sorts of reminder apps you can use. While people usually add reminders for items in the near future (pick up dry cleaning, etc.) there’s no reason they couldn’t be used for to-dos that are many years out.

If you use a paper planner, you’re probably not going to be able to add something to your calendar for 10 years out. But if you use a binder-style planner such as Day-Timer or Circa you could use a to-do list (or just a blank note page) to capture all these future to-dos and carry that list forward, year after year. At the beginning of each year, you could add any relevant items from that list to the upcoming year’s calendar.

Finally, if you use a tickler file (such as the Smead desk organizer/sorter) you could put reminders for all future-year items in your December file, and then move them to the appropriate months at the start of the next year (or keep them in December if they apply to a future year).

Changing habits painlessly: a Bullet Journal experiment

A couple of weeks ago I stated my intention of using a Bullet Journal to improve not just my work productivity but to keep me on track with all the events I have throughout the year in my personal life.

Thank you to all of you who took the time to comment and to encourage me. The two most common suggestions were to customize and to take care not to get sucked into all the extras, and that advice has been duly noted and absorbed.

Fortunately I am a lazy person and my artistic interests lie in textiles not scrapbooking, so I won’t get drawn into forums or into making my journal pretty. My goal for using the Bullet Journal is to make sure that I use my time productively at work (so as to avoid chaos) and to not get into trouble at home by forgetting to plan special moments in our lives (something that happens quite often given my head-in-the-clouds personality). If at any point I find using a Bullet Journal takes more time than any of my other productivity systems in the past, out the window it will go.

As for customizing the system, I’ve already done that. According to the website, I was “supposed to” set up a Future Planning section where events and tasks for more than the current month and then a Monthly Calendar/To Do List at the beginning of each month.

This didn’t work for me. Given the nature of my job, and the way I tend to leave personal tasks to the last minute, I need to have the Monthly Calendars/To Do Lists laid out from the start. The Future Planning section will likely get ignored or will be used to put general topics only. And maybe next year it will disappear altogether. Time and use will tell.

I can see the benefit of using a Bullet Journal already, and I haven’t even started using the day-to-day lists (I’m waiting until after my vacation to get started on those). As I’ve repeatedly said, I’m horrible at remembering to plan for anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and so on. It’s like they suddenly jump out at me out of nowhere, like October 8th (our wedding anniversary) happens at some random point in the year and I never know exactly when it will show up.

By just setting up the Monthly Calendars and giving myself a full page beside each calendar for the To Do Lists, I’ve already started to think about special events that are going to happen between now and next August and have even started planning them.

For example, in 2018 the Eurovision Song Contest will be happening in Lisbon (and will likely never be so close or so affordable in many years again). This is a very popular event and will not just sell out quickly, but Lisbon itself will fill up and soon there will be no place to stay. Taking past habits into account, my normal mode of acting on this desire to go would be to wait until April 2018 to start organizing everything, or to wait until my husband brought up the topic. However, by marking the date in the Monthly Calendar and in the Future Planning section of the journal, I’ve made myself doubly aware of the need to plan. May 2018 is not really that far away. I added a note in the November section of the Future Planning to say that we need to start organizing the trip by then or it’s not going to happen.

That’s one habit changed, without any fuss or struggle. Yay me!

I can’t wait to see how else using the Bullet Journal will bring about changes in habits and productivity.

For those of you who do use Bullet Journals, how has the system changed things for you?

How to be a good host: planning for house guests

We love to have people stay with us. In my case, it’s in my blood. My parents ran a B&B for years, not because they needed the money, but because they loved meeting new people and taking care of them (I was going to say “showing them a good time” but it wasn’t that sort of B&B).

However, being a great host requires a lot of planning, thought, and preparation if you and your guests are going to have a good time and not end up stressed out by the end of the visit.

There’s a great article over on The Kitchn about how to be a good host and we do quite a few of the things listed there, but I thought I’d put down exactly what we do to make our friends and family feel that staying with us is like going to a 5-star resort, and yet without exhausting ourselves.

We plan meals in advance

If people have full and satisfied tummies, they are much happier and more relaxed. We always discuss options and give our expected guests a few (but not too many) choices. Eat in or dine out? Any food allergies or preferences? We also know most of our guests well, so can plan around their favourite foods (for example, one friend always has sushi and strawberry mojitos waiting for her when she comes over).

We cook as much as we can before guests arrive

Our menus often center around food that can be prepared days (or at least hours) beforehand, giving us the freedom to be spend time with our guests. And if the food is last-minute only, we take turns playing host while the other busies himself in the kitchen.

A special breakfast is essential

There’s a reason B&Bs and breakfast buffets at hotels are so popular — nothing says vacation like taking time to sit and chat while eating a variety of sweet and savoury dishes and sipping at a cappuccino. As I said above, happy tummies equal happy guests. Unless your day starts with a tight schedule, don’t rush through breakfast. And if you do have to get going without that relaxing café con leche, how about take some previously prepared muffins along for the ride?

We come up with a list of possible excursions

There’s nothing worse than getting a bunch of people together and then saying “so what do you want to do?” No one knows, ever. No one wants to be the pushy one. No one wants to be the one to decide.

When we have guests, we either tell them the plan (so many people on holiday love not having to think), or we give them a list of (limited) options to choose from. By thinking of possible outings before guests arrive, no one ends up sitting on the sofa staring at the ceiling wondering why they came to visit you anyway.

A shower-sergeant is imperative

Early July there were six of us in our one-bathroom apartment in La Rioja. We had a winery visit at noon and we finished our slow-breakfast at 10:30. Six people needed to shower, do their hair and get ready to leave for 11:45. If we hadn’t chivvied them along, we would never have left. It’s quite amusing to see even the most sensitive and anger-prone people jump up and dash into the bathroom without complaint when they hear “Next!” shouted out in our best “parent-voice.”

It’s all about the details

This is something I’ve learned from my husband. Turn your guests’ stay into something luxurious and extraordinary by:

  • Giving each guest a little kit of amenities from those that you’ve collected from your own hotel stays.
  • Having a guestbook where you paste a Polaroid onto the page and get them to write something about their visit.
  • Showing them something special about your town/city that someone unfamiliar with the place would never see.
  • Playing a silly party game like musical chairs or pin the tail on the donkey. Even the most serious adult will unwind and end up fighting for that last chair, believe me.

Let people help

In the past, whenever guests offered a hand, I always used to say no. They were guests and shouldn’t have to raise a finger. And yet, when I’m a guest in a friend’s house, if I don’t help out I feel selfish and uncomfortable. So, I’ve started saying “Yes, of course you can help, thanks!” Whether it’s cutting up some vegetables, helping me make the beds, or handing me clothespins while I hang up the beach towels, it deepens the bond between us and gives our hands something to do while we chat and catch up on each other’s lives.

Give people time to do nothing

This last point is the hardest one for us to have learned. We tend to believe that if our guests are sitting on the sofa playing with their mobiles, more or less in their own little worlds, it’s because we aren’t doing our jobs as hosts. But that’s not true, at all. Everyone needs to disconnect from interacting with each other. It’s exhausting being “on” all the time. And we’ve learned that this time is key for us as well. When we see that people are tuning out, we retire to the bedroom and take a well-needed nap, or slip into the kitchen to prepare a snack or some part of the next meal.

How about you? What do you do to make your guests’ stay memorable? Or what have you liked that someone else has done?

Making the time to learn new skills

Does your to-do list — or your project list or someday/maybe list, if you follow the Getting Things Done methodology — have things like learning to play golf, learning French, or learning to play an instrument? You may have been intimidated by the frequently quoted statistic that it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something.

But as Josh Kaufman points out in his informative and entertaining TEDx Talk, that 10,000-hour rule only applies if you want to become an expert in a highly competitive field: a star athlete, a world-class musician, etc. If you just want to be reasonably good, he says, you can learn a new skill with just 20 hours of practice — a number that’s a lot less intimidating.

Kaufman has a book which elaborates on the TEDx talk, but you can get the gist of his thinking from that talk, from his conversation with Jonathan Fields on the Good Life Project website, from his document entitled The First 20 Hours: Secrets of Rapid Skill Acquisition (PDF) on ChangeThis.com, and from the information on his own website.

Kaufman recommends that you follow these steps to learn any new skill:

Deconstruct the skill

Decide exactly what you want to be able to do, and set a target performance level. Then break the skill down into smaller pieces. That’s the same advice you’ll see for tackling any large project.

Listening to Kaufman talk about having a well-defined target made me think about how I approached learning French some years ago. My goal in learning French was to know enough to perform basic tourist activities: reserve a hotel room, buy a train ticket, order a meal in a restaurant, etc. Having that focused goal kept me from being overwhelmed — especially since language skills don’t come easily to me. When Kaufman discussed his work on Good Life Project website, he gave an example very similar to this.

Kaufman’s ChangeThis document has a nice example of deconstructing a skill you’ve chosen as your goal:

Take golf for example — in the course of a single game, you do many different things: driving off the tee, selecting clubs, chipping out of bunkers, and putting on the green. Each of those activities is a skill in itself.

Learn enough to self-correct

It’s easy to get caught up in theoretical learning, from books and other resources, rather than actually practicing the skill. Kaufman urges you to learn just enough of the basic concepts that you can self-correct when you’re doing your practice. Beyond this, focusing on learning rather than jumping in and practicing is just a way of procrastinating, he says.

Remove the barriers to practice

You can easily get derailed from practicing a new skill, especially at the beginning when you’re no good at something. So set up your environment to minimize distractions, and make it as easy as possible to do the practicing. On the Good Life Project, Kaufman talks about keeping that guitar you want to learn to play close at hand, not buried away in a closet where it’s difficult to access.

Practice at least 20 hours

Pre-commit to those 20 hours — twice a day for 20 minutes for one month will do it. In his book (and on the Good Life Project) Kaufman recommends setting a timer for those 20 minutes, because we tend to be horrible at estimating how long we’ve been doing something.

And as he says in his ChangeThis document:

If you’re not willing to commit to at least 20 hours of practice, then drop the project and learn something else. Life is short.

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.