Being early

As the person who was voted by his classmates “most likely to have a tardy slip” in eighth grade, I’ve had a lot to overcome when it comes to punctuality.

If someone were to ask me about why I was often late, my most common answer would have been some variation of “I ran out of time.” Does this sound familiar? Additionally, I thought that arriving earlier than I needed was a waste of time. Why sit in the parking lot and do nothing for 15 minutes? Also, there’s a rush that can accompany sprinting out of the door at the last second.

I believe that I was into that rush for a while, at least subconsciously. Waiting until the last possible second generated an adrenaline release that accompanied the sudden, pressing flurry of activity, and that was something I enjoyed. Once I recognized that’s what was going on, it was time to address it.

And, surprisingly, all I did was create a simple pro and con list regarding my persistent tardiness. On the “pro” side (if you can call it that) was the thrill of adrenaline and the other reasons I already mentioned. The con side was much longer, and much more convincing: chronic stress, disappointing others, disrespecting others’ time, shoddy work, etc. With that in mind, I decided to be chronically early.

Ultimately, I discovered that being early can actually save you time. Here’s how:

  1. You have time to relax and prepare before an event. Arriving 15 minutes early isn’t a waste of 15 minutes, it’s a gain. Look over your papers. Review what you’re going to do or say in your head. Or, just sip your coffee or tea and breathe.
  2. Good things pop up. I’ve been in situations where someone has said to me, “Oh, since you’re early do you want to help me with something?” I was able to provide a little unexpected something extra to someone else, which they won’t forget.
  3. Bust out some email replies. When I pick up my daughter from ballet classes, I like to be a good 15 minutes early. The waiting room is quiet and cozy with lots of comfortable furniture — perfect for replying to a few email messages. Again, that’s 15 minutes gained, not wasted.

Finally, and this is my favorite reason to be early: it gives me time to connect with others. “Why are we so early?” my kids often ask. The answer is so we can talk. Or laugh. Or discuss school or friends. Even 10 quiet minutes in the car or a waiting room can be so nice.

Some organization is required to join the perpetually early. Commit to working on projects well before they’re due. Leave the house earlier than you think you need to, and ensure that bags are packed and ready to go the night before they’re needed. You’ll be sipping tea and chilling out while everyone else is speeding along, stressed to the gills in an attempt to show up on time. Welcome to the early club.

Creating a schedule to reflect your priorities

One of my resolutions for 2016 is to get a better handle on my time. I created this resolution because I noticed in the last three or four months of 2015 that the vast majority of my days were spent catching up or just going with the flow instead of actively participating and pursuing what matters most to me. It’s not that I was neglecting my priorities, rather that I was being passive about them.

To help work toward my resolution, I bypassed traditional goal-setting and went straight for creating a list of to-do items. For my first to-do item, I wanted to track exactly how I was spending my time — from the moment I woke up in the morning until I went to bed each night. I grabbed a stopwatch and a notebook and recorded what I did each time I changed activities. Some things I left a little vague, such as “got ready for the day,” since brushing teeth and getting dressed aren’t things I’m going to remove from my daily routine. But for the most part, I kept detailed notes of how I spent my time like, “checked Facebook on phone” and “read 2 pgs. of a book while standing at bus stop waiting for son.” After a week of recording data, I felt that I had a decent idea of how I was spending my time (and I was bored out of my mind with writing down what I was doing). If this is your first time recording data about how to spend your time, you may wish to log your activities for two weeks because often the act of logging what you’re doing influences how you spend your time. Once the novelty of tracking what you’re doing wears off, you’ll get a better idea of how you’re really operating.

My second to-do item was to sort through the logs and label the activities. I chose three colors of highlighters and swiped a color over each activity. Yellow were for activities fully in line with my priorities and my time commitment to those activities or actions taking care of my responsibilities (like depositing money into my retirement fund — it’s not a task I particularly enjoy, but it’s one that takes care of a responsibility that is in line with my priorities). Pink highlights were for activities not in line with my priorities or actions that were in line with my priorities but taking up more of my time than I wanted (like staying in touch with my family and friends is a priority and reading and posting to Facebook is one of the many ways I fulfill that priority, but I don’t need to check in with Facebook four times a day when two times is sufficient). Green highlights were for things in line with my priorities that I wanted to spend more time on than I was (one example that fell into this category was that I was lifting weights three times a week but I wanted to start training for a triathlon, so I needed to increase my numbers and types of workouts to better reflect this priority).

My last to-do item was to create and begin to follow a new schedule that more accurately represents my priorities. I chose to make a weekly calendar, broken into 30-minute increments, to help me with this process. In addition to chores, wake up and bed times, and most of my life’s set activities, I’ve mapped out blocks of time that are more open ended but still have direction. For example, after cleanup from dinner but before it’s time to start getting the kids ready for bed, there is usually an hour of “free” time. Each night I’ve made notes on the calendar for ideas of things to do during this hour that reflect my priorities. Instead of plopping myself down in front of the television (which is not a priority for me on weeknights), I now have a list of things I can do that I know bring me much more happiness than squandering that time (like working on a puzzle with my kids or having a living room dance part with them or playing flashlight tag in the yard if the weather is cooperating or Skyping with my parents).

Since creating the new schedule, I’ve been much happier and feel more like I’m actively participating in my life. I’m not rigid with the schedule — if something falls through the cracks or I come down with a migraine (like I did on Saturday), I’m not freaking out about abandoning the schedule for a bit. It’s there more as a guide than a law, and this attitude is working well for me.

How do you ensure that your time is focused on what matters most to you? Do you think a similar schedule would help you to feel happier and more comfortable with how you’re spending your time? A few changes might be all it takes to get your life more in line with your priorities.

Organizing your thoughts

As you may have guessed, the first step for organizing your thoughts is writing them down. (Especially thoughts related to things you need to do.) It’s not hyperbole to say that writing things down can change your life. It helps clear your mind for important work, offers a record of the past, and can foster a sense of achievement. But even beyond that, having things written down, even when the resulting list is huge, can help you feel like you’re on top of things. But simply making a list isn’t all you need.

For optimal thought organization, consider taking these additional steps. First, and this is the most critical piece in the process, perform a good core dump. Get everything — and I mean everything — out of your mind. When everything is out of your mind, it can stop pestering you about what needs to be done. Your mind is more of a problem solver than a filing cabinet.

Next, find the tool that’s going to work for you for capturing those tasks/ideas and working from them. Notebook? (A Moleskine, a Little List, an Emergent Task Planner) An app? (Evernote, ToDoist, Wunderlist) Desktop software? (OmniFocus, Fantastical, Toodledo) It really doesn’t matter. Just identify the tool that is best for you (a.k.a. that you will actually use over the longterm). One that helps you to prioritize your work and integrates (even manually) with your calendar are also good ideas.

Finally, identify the best time of the day to do the work or tasks you need to accomplish so they stop weighing on you. For years, I was the type who liked to work at night. When the kids were in bed, I could retreat to my home office and work for a few hours. Today, that’s not the case. I find that I like being with my family in the evening and then prepping for the next day in other ways, like making sure backpacks are full, my outfit is ready for the next day, lunches are made, and so on. Instead, I’ve begun doing thoughtful work in the morning, before the rest of the house wakes up and starts their day. The point is: notice what works for you and stick with it.

If you’re looking for ideas for ways to do your core dump, my favorite way is to brainstorm with a mind map. It’s a great way to have a powerful brainstorming session without resulting in a mess that must be sorted before you can get on with the rest of your work.

Now, take the time to find the time and tools that are most amenable for you and enjoy productive thought organization.

Understanding procrastination

Do you tend to procrastinate? I certainly do, at times. But I just read a couple articles about procrastination (thanks to Julie Bestry and Debra Baida, who shared them on Twitter), which provided some valuable insights into how procrastination works and what this means for time management.

Why we procrastinate: time inconsistency

On his personal website, James Clear wrote about time inconsistency: “the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.”

As Clear went on to explain:

When you make plans for yourself — like setting a goal to lose weight or write a book or learn a language — you are actually making plans for your future self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future and when you think about the future it is easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits.

When the time comes to make a decision, however, you are no longer making a choice for your future self. Now you are in the moment and your brain is thinking about the present self. And researchers have discovered that the present self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.

In this article and another one, Clear provides useful strategies for fighting the effects of time inconsistency and overcoming procrastination. Personally, I realized that when I’ve been most successful in fighting procrastination, I’ve actually said to myself, “Future Me is going to be so glad I did this!” And that’s one of the strategies: vividly visualizing the benefits your future self will enjoy.

One tiny example: I ran errands on a lovely Monday, even when I was feeling lazy and could have put them off for a day, because I knew Future Me would be very glad to not have to leave the house in the forecasted downpour the following Tuesday.

Why procrastination can sometimes be useful

Adam Grant’s recent article in The New York Times was provocatively titled “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate.” Grant explained that he tends toward pre-crastination: “the urge to start a task immediately and finish it as soon as possible.”

But what he came to realize is that for creative tasks (preparing a speech, writing a term paper, etc.) a certain amount of procrastination can be useful. Beginning the project but not rushing to complete it gave him a better result than finishing as quickly as he could. As he explained:

Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional. … When you procrastinate, you’re more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns.

But even for creative efforts, there can be too much procrastination. Those who wait until the last minute to begin a project have to “rush to implement the easiest idea instead of working out a novel one.”

So for creative tasks, setting a schedule that allows for some procrastination time may be wise. I know I can write a blog post quickly, but my writing often benefits from taking extra time to ponder the subject. You may well have similar projects that could use that extra time, too.

Eat that frog later?

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” — Mark Twain

The “frog” in the Mark Twain quote above has been adopted by the business community and productivity advocates to represent the one task or activity you’re least looking forward to completing over the course of your day. The idea being that once the unappealing task is done, the rest of the day is a breeze in comparison.

It’s an interesting idea for sure. But let’s consider a minor alteration: is there a benefit to eating the frog second, or even third?

In May 2011, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled, “The Power of Small Wins.” In it, author Teresa Amabile describes something called The Progress Principle:

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”

Amabile and her colleagues conducted a study in which they asked people to record details of a “best day” and “worst day” at work, in terms of motivation. The results were interesting. The days labeled as a “best day” were those during which progress was made on a project:

“If a person is motivated and happy at the end of the workday, it’s a good bet that he or she made some progress. If the person drags out of the office disengaged and joyless, a setback is most likely to blame.”

I’ve noticed this tendency in myself. For that reason, I like to set myself up for early wins with one or two quickie successes early in the morning.

For example, if know I have to sit down at the computer and write a proposal, I might clear a few emails from my inbox first, tackle another small to-do item (like returning an object to a coworker), re-read an article related to my proposal, and then begin writing.

I find that if I clear a few easy items off of my “to-do” list, I experience some of the benefits described in the Progress Principle above, and I can use that momentum to tackle the big project of the day — the frog. A couple little successes can go a long way.

Uncluttering social media frustrations

Over the past few months I’ve seen various people complaining about social media interactions, with comments such as the following:

  • My Facebook (or Twitter) timeline is filled with people saying horrible things.
  • My aunt (or co-worker, college friend, etc.) shared an article that’s factually wrong.
  • Someone is continually saying things I find abhorrent.

What can you do in such situations? There are a number of choices:

Take the time to respond with reliable information or a well-reasoned argument

This can be time-consuming, so I’d recommend limiting this response to situations where the other person is likely to be influenced by what you write. For example, when people fall for a story that has been debunked by Snopes.com, they often appreciated being directed to accurate information. But if the subject involves long-held political or religious beliefs, you are unlikely to sway them to your point of view.

Just ignore it

As the xkcd comic says, people are wrong on the Internet all the time — wrong according to your view of the world, at any rate. So in many cases, just ignoring what someone has written is the easiest way to avoid frustration. For example, you don’t need to read a relative’s entire 500-word post supporting a political candidate you dislike. You can see it, shake your head, and move on. That will save you time and limit the annoyance factor.

Similarly, if many people in your social media circle are discussing a topic that always gets you angry, that may be a good time to ignore Facebook, Twitter, or other such networks for a while.

Hide updates you don’t want to see

Ignoring something can be hard, so it may be better to unclutter your timeline and just not see certain posts in the first place. Twitter readers such as TweetDeck, Tweetbot, and Twitterrific allow you to mute text strings. If you don’t want to read anything about a certain person, organization, or event, you can just mute the relevant name or hashtag. That’s not foolproof, because variations on the name might still make it through your filter, but it will catch a lot of the aggravating posts.

With Facebook, you can choose to hide a specific story that appears in your newsfeed. That means you’ll still have seen it once, but you don’t have to keep seeing it as people respond.

Disengage with selected people

Sometimes it works better to hide posts from selected people than to hide posts based on the topic. While you may certainly want to read posts from people who disagree with you, some people’s posts may be so frustrating that seeing them doesn’t serve you well.

You may feel obligated to friend your relatives on Facebook, but you can still unfollow them — which means you’ll stay connected but you won’t see anything they post. (Alternatively, you can choose to just see fewer updates from these people.) If you don’t feel any obligation to be connected to a specific person, you can just unfriend someone whose posts continually annoy you. On Twitter, you can unfollow someone (the equivalent of unfriending on Facebook) or just mute the person.

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.

Relax
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.