Monday, December 27, 2004

Out with the Old (Part 1)

Tip of the Week, December 19, 2004

As the new year draws closer, many of us start thinking about resolutions, whether we make a formal list of them or just try to keep them in mind as we head into 2005. "Get (or stay) organized" is a resolution that is gaining in popularity, and rightly so! It's a great way of getting more control over your life and your stuff.

The next few Tips of the Week will look at ways of getting a jump start on organizing in the last part of this year and starting out the new year destined for success. First up: tying up any 2004 loose ends.

Achieving balance
The fire's crackling in front of you, a nice warm cup of cider is on the table next to you, your favorite seasonal tunes are on the stereo. It's the perfect time to...balance your checkbook!

To be sure, that task doesn't make most of us shout with glee, but it can be an important way of bringing the year to a close and looking forward to the next year. While you have a bit of downtime, aim to bring out your checkbook and your most recent bank statement and work on bringing them into balance. This can help you not only head into the new year with a clean slate and one less thing to worry about, but can also bring to light your spending and saving patterns of the past year. If something seems off-kilter in the financial realm, now might be a good time to think of ways to bring things back into order.

If your bank book is already in order, or if you've got some extra time, you may want to organize your receipts and other financial information as well. Come tax time, you'll have one less thing to worry about (and one less thing you need to pay a tax preparer to do for you).

Letting go and holding on
For many of us, exchanging gifts around the holidays means that at least a few new things will come into our lives before the year is over. Rather than simply adding that new sweater to your existing collection or stuffing those new kitchen accessories into your drawers, try taking the time to cull the things you no longer want or need first.

Think of the change of the year as a chance to physically leave behind the old and make space for the new. That doesn't mean, of course, that you need to jettison things that are still important and useful to you; it simply means that this is a good time to take a hard, honest look at the things surrounding you so you can see more clearly which of them you love or know to be useful, and which might find happier homes elsewhere.

If you'll be celebrating the holidays with family members, you might even enlist some of them to help with the sorting and purging process, especially if some of the items you've been holding onto have sentimental value. Holding Aunt Jane's old teapot and sharing memories of her using it can be a meaningful way of keeping the spirit of the item alive while letting the item itself go. (You might even take photos as you sort through items like these to create a visual record of the experience.)

Make it meaningful
Though balancing your checkbook or cleaning out your hall closet will likely never become a cherished part of your holiday rituals, bringing some holiday cheer to these tasks can help make them less painful. So by all means, do sit down with a cup of your favorite holiday brew and some seasonal music while you sort through your financial records, and do give yourself time to reminisce (either on your own or with friends and family) over items you cull from your closets. However you choose to tackle these tasks, the idea is to acknowledge the past year, to celebrate the present, and to look forward to what lies ahead in 2005.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Organized Packing

Tip of the Week, December 12, 2004

Picture this: you're lugging three large suitcases through an unbelievably crowded airport, with seemingly never-ending lines everywhere you look. You finally reach the ticket counter, where the agent informs you that there will be an extra charge for your extra heavy bags. Things don't get any better at the security checkpoint, where the carefully wrapped gifts you've stashed in your carry-on bag get unwrapped so they can be inspected. To make things even worse, when you finally make it to the gate, the agent there tells you you'll need to check your carry-on, as it's too big to fit in the cabin.

Holiday travel--or travel at any busy time--is stressful enough; you don't need luggage nightmares to make it worse. Take the time to do a bit of pre-planning and some careful packing, and you may just be able to avoid the baggage blues. Here's how.

Plan ahead
Before piling the better half of your wardrobe into a suitcase, do your homework: what will the weather be like where you're going? How long will you be there? Will you need dressy clothes, or will casual duds be the order of the day? Will you have access to laundry facilities while you're away?

On the basis of your answers to those questions, choose a few basics--shirts, sweaters, pants, skirts--that you can mix and match to create different outfits. Add a few special accessories, undergarments and socks, and one or two extra pairs of shoes. (Remember, you'll be wearing an outfit and a pair of shoes on the plane, so be sure to count those, too.)

Follow these same steps with anyone else you're packing for, such as children or a spouse. If at all possible, aim to limit each family member's luggage to one checked bag, one small carry-on, and a purse, briefcase, or small backpack.

Pack neatly
Once you've decided what you'll bring, fold all of your clothes neatly and pack them carefully. You may want to use packing cubes and envelopes (or even large Ziploc bags), which help keep clothes folded and together and help prevent wrinkles. Slip shoes into plastic bags to keep them from getting your clothes dirty. Gather together any toiletries you'll need to bring and stash them all in a Dopp kit or a large Ziploc bag.

If you're traveling with gifts, don't wrap them, as TSA agents may need to unwrap them to inspect them when your bags go through security. If you're bringing valuables of any kind with you--jewelry, electronics, prescription medications, and so on--DO NOT put them in a bag you plan to check. Most airlines take no responsibility for valuables that are lost or stolen from checked luggage.

Check on weights and sizes
Before you finalize your packing, it's worthwhile to check with your airline (or with Amtrak if you're traveling by train) to see what the restrictions on baggage size and weight are. Airlines generally have a baggage weight limit for each passenger; if you exceed it, you may have to pay extra to get your bags on board. Also be sure that any bag you plan to carry on to the plane will fit either in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you so you won't have to worry about checking bags at the gate.

Traveling at busy times of the year may never be fun, but by taking some time to plan ahead and get organized as you pack, you can help make it less stressful. By the time you get on the plane, you'll be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy your bag of peanuts and in-flight movie.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Celebrate with Organization (Part 2)

Tip of the Week, December 5, 2004

Now that the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone it's time to get ready for the December holidays. Here are a few ideas to help keep you on track throughout the month and to help make your celebrations, whatever they may be, less stressful and more fun.

Cards and correspondence

  • If the thought of sending holiday cards in December makes your head spin, consider holding off until January and sending Happy New Year greetings instead. You'll have one less task to do this month, and your cards won't get lost in the shuffle of the other correspondence people receive in December.
  • Can't imagine the season without Christmas or Hanukah cards? Make it a point to write and send them this week. (Hanukah begins this Wednesday, so you'll want to get to the mailbox ASAP tomorrow if you're sending Hanukah greetings.) If you're mailing cards across the country or internationally, posting them by the end of the week should ensure they'll arrive on time.
  • As you receive cards from others, take a moment to be sure you have their addresses in your address book. Keeping your records up-to-date will prevent returned mail as well as the rush to find those last few addresses you need before dropping your cards in the mailbox.

Gift giving (and getting!)

  • Try doing as much of your shopping online as you can. You'll avoid the throngs at the mall and can take your time browsing. If you'll be celebrating Christmas away from home, try having the items you order online shipped to your destination, rather than to your house, to avoid having to re-ship them or travel with them.
  • To avoid spending more than you intend to or going overboard on gifts, make a list of who you're buying for and how much you want to spend on each person before you start shopping. Then make a promise to yourself to stick with those guidelines.
  • Remember that experiences--a restaurant gift certificate, movie tickets, a massage--can be great gifts, especially for people who already have plenty of things or people who might not be able to pay for these experiences themselves.
  • If you find yourself over-"stuffed," consider asking others to give you experiences instead of things. You might also opt to have people make donations in your name; sites like let you create a wish list of charities that are meaningful to you.

Things to do, places to go...

  • Don't force yourself to go to holiday gatherings or events you won't enjoy. You'll clutter up your schedule, increase your stress level, and lose time you could spend on more important things. When declining party invitations, a simple thank you note or phone call is a good way to let the hostess know that you appreciate her thinking of you.
  • If you don't already create some kind of daily to-do list, now is a great time to start; if you do, keep it up, and be sure to refer to your list throughout the day. Jot down reminders, tasks, and notes as you think of them, and check things off as you finish them.
  • When possible, try to do tasks in bulk. For example, get all of your baking done at once, and freeze the items you won't use right away. The initial investment of time and effort will pay off.

Finally, regardless of how busy your schedule gets, be sure to set aside time for yourself--even if only a few minutes--each day. Stepping away from the hustle and bustle of the season will help you recharge, relax, and reward yourself for all you've done. Here's to you!

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Celebrate with Organization (Part 1)

Tip of the Week, November 21 and 28, 2004

The holiday season is here, and with it come meals to cook, parties to throw and attend, cards to send, gifts to buy, decorations to display...the list can seem endless! While there might not be a way to ensure completely stress-free celebrations, getting organized can help you avoid some common holiday pitfalls and can make the events of the season more enjoyable. Take a moment to relax and read on.

Avoid meal madness
Whether you're hosting a large Thanksgiving dinner or giving a small dinner party for friends later in the season, the planning and preparation for meal-based celebrations can seem overwhelming. If possible, aim to share the work with family and friends: hold a potluck, assign each guest to bring a particular part of the meal, or pitch in to pay for a catered affair. Downsizing can also work: try having a brunch party rather than a dinner party, or arrange for a cookie exchange in which each guest or family brings a few dozen of a particular kind of cookie.

Whatever type of meal-based party you choose to hold, take the time to plan not only the menu but also the logistics in advance. As you select recipes, go through your fridge or pantry to see what ingredients you have, and keep a detailed list of what you need to buy. Also take a look at the cookware and serving pieces you have to be sure you've got what you need for each dish you're making. A few days before the feast, pull out the plates and flatware you'll use to be sure they're clean, and label each serving dish with a sticky note indicating what it'll be used for. Both of these simple steps can avoid last-minute rushes.

Be a good guest
Even if you're not hosting a meal or party, you can help make the host or hostess' life easier by providing some organizing help. If you live nearby, offer to come by the day before the party to help clean up, do some last-minute grocery shopping, or lend a hand with some cooking. If you'll be dining with close friends or family, you might ask to be put in charge of clean-up after the meal; have the host give you a tour of the kitchen so you'll know how the dishwasher works, where the sponges are stored, and where things get put away once they're clean.

Kitchen work isn't the only way you can contribute. You might offer to be in charge of sending or e-mailing invitations to the party and gathering RSVPs. Perhaps you can help coordinate a potluck, arrange group childcare for parents who'll be attending the party, or bring and arrange flowers, centerpieces, or other decorations for the celebration. Be generous and creative; your host will thank you!

Coming up
An advertisement for Nordstrom's department store in today's newspaper proudly notes that their stores won't be decorated for the winter holidays until after Thanksgiving, as they believe in celebrating one holiday at a time. I'm with them! Although Hanukkah begins in early December and Christmas festivities won't be far behind, I encourage you to put preparations for those celebrations on hold for now and simply enjoy Thanksgiving.

The Tip of the Week will return on December 5 with more suggestions on ways to make your holidays more organized and less stressful. In the meantime, you have my best wishes for a happy, meaningful, and abundant Thanksgiving. Cheers!