Monday, May 29, 2006

Organized Bill Paying

Tip of the Week, May 21, 2006

Few things can cause as many headaches as a seemingly endless stack of bills, all clamoring for attention. Paying bills can be a drag, especially when the process is a chaotic one, involving a hunt for checkbooks and stamps, worrying about paying on time, and making sure there's enough money in the bank to cover everything.

A few simple steps can go a long way toward making the task an easier and less painful one. Here's how to organize your bill paying.

Establish Bill Central
As with many tasks, paying bills is easier if the tools and supplies you need to do it are conveniently located in one spot. Take the time to create bill central: a spot to stash stamps, your checkbook, pens, and a folder or large envelope to store bills as they come in. When you're ready to pay, everything you need will be in one easy-to-find location.

Create a List of Bills
Knowing what bills you pay on a regular basis, when each one is due, and how you pay it (i.e., online, through the mail, or automatically through your bank) can help you stay on top of the payment process. Make a list of every bill you pay, whether weekly, monthly, or a few times a year, as well as when each type of bill is generally due (for example, toward the end of the month, at the start of each season, and so on); if the amount of a particular bill tends to stay the same from payment to payment, make a note of that, too. Keep your list with the rest of your bill-paying supplies.

Change When Bills Are Due
Once you've created your list of bills, you might find that your due dates are so scattered that you seem to be paying bills all month long, or that all of your bills are due around the same time each month. To avoid both of these fates, try calling the companies that bill you and ask if they'll change your payment schedule. Aim to balance your due dates throughout the month, with larger payments scheduled for times you're sure your bank account can accommodate them and smaller payments consolidated so you can make several of them around the same time.

Consider Online Bill Pay
If you don't already pay bills online, look into it. Not only does online bill pay save a few stamps each month, it can also limit the amount of mail you need to deal with, the number of papers you need to file, and the chance that a bill will be late or forgotten. Many banks now offer online bill pay services; check with yours to see what how the program works and what fees (if any) apply. Most companies (such as phone service providers and utility companies) will also be happy to bill you directly through e-mail and accept payments online.

Schedule Time to Pay and File
When your bill paying systems are in place, all that's left is to actually sit down and write out the checks (or make the online payments). Of course, this is precisely where the process breaks down for many of us. To ensure that you stay on track, schedule time in your calendar to pay your bills regularly (twice a month, say) and to file the bills once they're paid. Scheduling bill paying as a regular task will make it easier to deal with and will decrease the chances of missed or late bills.

Paying bills won't likely ever be anyone's favorite chore, but with a bit of planning and some organization, it can be a less stressful, less painful process. If it helps avoid late fees and charges, it might even pay for itself in the end.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Family Organizing

Tip of the Week, May 14, 2006

[Note: This week's Tip comes courtesy of my colleague Esther Roberts. Esther's recommendations can help busy families stay organized--and can keep the parents responsible for coordinating those families saner and less stressed. Enjoy Esther's suggestions, and Happy Mother's Day!]

I am a mom of 3 kids (7, 9, and 13). It was really hard when the kids were really young to keep it all together, so time management skills was really important. Some things that I started when they were young, and have continued to do:

1) Limit the number of toys. The less they have, the more they actually play with them. If you don't have the heart to purge the toys, then ROTATE them! Remember, the less they have, the less that needs to be picked up.

2) Start chores from an early age. The age of the child will determine the chore, but so will the size of the child. For example, my eldest was always big for his age. He was the size of a 9-year-old when he was 7, so I had him taking out the garbage when he was 7 and that I added recycling to his list when he turned 9 and was the size of an 11-year-old! Even an 18-month-old can carry their plate to the sink.

3) Do drive-throughs whenever possible, especially when the kids are in the car. Here in Vallejo we have a drive through: Walgreens for prescriptions, drycleaners, a convenience store called the "drive thru dairy", banks, and so on. Sure beats hauling the kids in and out of stores and in and out of car seats. Drive-throughs are especially convenient when the kids are asleep in the car and you still have "to-do's" left on your list.

4) Plan your errand runs. Think of all the things that you need to do and plot them in a circle, with home being both start and finish to your route. By not zigzagging on errands you will save a lot of time, gas, and patience!

5) Save clothes by weight, not size. Since clothes fit differently by manufactures, and shrink along the way, if you saved something by the age on the garment, it may not fit by the time younger children are ready to wear it. So I always labeled the box by the weight the child was when they grew into it and grew out of it. This worked out great for clothes under size 5. After size 5, I labeled it by size, not weight. For some reason the clothes became more consistent in fit by then.

6) Plan dental trips as a family time. This is something we started when our first child was born. My husband and I would trade off holding the kid in the waiting room while the other one of us was in the dental chair. Now that the kids are older, I leave one in the dental chair, one observing while the sibling is having his or her teeth cleaned, and mom goes shopping at Whole Foods across the street with the third child. Kills two birds with one stone! The dentist calls me on my cell phone when they are done. Remember, merge errands whenever possible!

7) Limit activities; it will save your sanity. We tend to be an over-achieving society. Kids are now scheduled more heavily then adults with ballet, scouting, soccer, T-ball, piano, swimming, and karate. Choose one or two activities per year. It really becomes ridiculous when there are multiple children doing multiple activities. Children need to be children. There is something to be said for a child playing with friends in the backyard. Call them deprived, but my kids do Scouts year round and swimming in the summer and for added amusement, they beat each other up to keep things interesting.

8) Clean up as you go along. Sounds like a basic thing, but if people actually washed and put away pots and pans as they were done using them there would be less cleanup after the meal time is over. Just wiping down counters and stove keeps it relatively neat until it is time to actually "clean" them.

9) Develop routines. I can't stress this enough. Children need routines, but so do adults. My evening routine includes running the dishwasher at night before bed and unloading it first thing in the morning. When I am off on this routine, dishes pile up and it becomes hard to play catch-up.

Esther Roberts is a professional organizer serving the Vallejo, Benicia, and Fairfield areas in Northern California. To find out more about Esther's services, visit her Web site, www.estherroberts.com.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Organizing 101

Tip of the Week, May 7, 2006

Organization can apply to may different things and to multiple areas of our lives, from getting the pantry in order to taking control over our daily schedules to digging out from years of accumulation. Though the specific tasks involved in each type of organization vary, the rudiments are the same regardless of what you're organizing.

Here are the basic steps involved in getting (and keeping) anything organized. Look for ways to apply these to anything that feels out of whack in your life.

Decide how to decide
As anyone who's ever tried getting something organized knows, one of the most difficult parts of the process is making decision after decision: what to keep, what to toss, where to put things, and so on. Having to make repeated decisions while doing something else (such as weeding) can be exhausting, and can make both processes much more difficult.

That's why I recommend setting aside time upfront to create some guidelines for the organizing you're going to do. This lets you take care of some of the decisions before you start anything else, and gives you a roadmap of sorts as you work through your project.

If, for example, you're working on streamlining your daily schedule, you might start by creating some guidelines as to which tasks and activities you definitely need to keep on your calendar, which you might be able to delegate to someone else or delay until you have time to do them, and which you can get rid of altogether. You might also take the chance to get input from others and do some brainstorming. When it comes time to actually reconfigure your schedule, you'll be much better prepared.

Sort and weed
Armed with your basic guidelines, your next step will be sorting and weeding. This is often the largest chunk of any organizing project, especially if you're dealing with something that's accumulated lots of excess over time, be it a desk, a closet, or a task list. Given how unwieldy weeding can be, it's important to break it into manageable chunks.

Don't try to sort everything at once: a weekend binge of sorting every last piece of clothing in your closets and dressers often leads to little more than fatigue and an overwhelming pile of clothes on the bed. Try instead sorting just shirts and sweaters first, then moving on to pants, then moving on to shoes. Aim to finish one category before starting in on the next, and take breaks when you need to.

Also, resist the urge to delve deeper into the organizing process (by, say, moving things to another part of the house, or going out and buying new containers) before you're done weeding. You'll run the risk of getting off track and having to repeat work you've already done.

Decide where things go
Once you know what you want to keep, you'll be ready to decide where things should go. If you're organizing a space (such as a house or office), this process will involve taking a look at how you use each part of the space, and placing things accordingly; for example, if your family room is the spot where you watch TV, play board games, and do crafts projects, it's the perfect place for your DVD collection, games and puzzles, and art supplies.

Decisions about where things should go also need to take into account spatial or other limitations. If you're organizing your daily schedule, for example, you'll need to work in hour-long tasks whenever you have a solid hour or more that's free, rather than trying to cram them into smaller chunks of time. Generally speaking, things--whether tasks, appointments, papers, or objects--should live in places that are convenient, easy to find, and logical to the person or people using them.

Label!
Labeling may seem like an overly fussy step, but it's one that's easy to take and has a definite impact. I recommend labeling not just the usual suspects--files, paper sorters, and the like--but also shelves, containers, and other spots where you might store things. A label is a useful visual reminder to yourself and others about where things should go, and it means you have one less thing to worry about remembering: label the top shelf in the pantry "Baking Supplies," for example, and you'll always know where to find and put back the flour.

Maintain, Maintain, Maintain
In the end, even the most beautiful and functional organizing system won't stick if you don't develop good organizing habits along with it. Get into the practice of regularly weeding out what you don't need or use, of adhering to the guidelines you've created, and of putting things back where they belong when you're done with them. Developing good habits takes time and dedication, but once you do, keeping your space organized becomes infinitely easier

Monday, May 08, 2006

Turning Intentions into Actions

Tip of the Week, April 30, 2006

We all know what's said about good intentions and the road they pave; what remains unsaid in that old saw is that intentions can be great, but without a solid action plan to back them up, they rarely amount to much.

Approaching your actions with intention can make your tasks more meaningful, more efficient, and more enjoyable; by the same token, creating intentions with a solid plan for putting them into action means you're more likely to actually see them come to fruition. Here are some tips on bridging the divide between intention and action.

Examine the source of your intentions
Intentions tend to come in three different flavors. First up are the things we intend to do because we must, such as finishing a report at work, cleaning the gutters at home, and balancing the checkbook. These types of intentions are necessary evils; we may not like the process, but the outcome is important.

Some of our intentions are aimed at things we want to do, such as planning a vacation, putting together a photo album, or making reservations for a play that's coming to town. These intentions help fill some sort of desire and are generally pleasant.

Finally, many of our intentions stem from things we feel we should do, either because someone else has suggested as much or because we feel some pressure from within. Should-based intentions are easily the dreariest of the three types, as they're often not enjoyable and generally don't have a clear and direct benefit.

Whenever possible, get rid of your shoulds and focus instead on the other two types of intentions. Your sense of accomplishment will be greater, and you'll be less likely to resent the time you spend on the task at hand.

Look for possible pitfalls
Of course, regardless of the source of your intention, there are plenty of potential pitfalls between stating it and actually accomplishing it. These pitfalls are precisely what cause so many intentions to fizzle out.

To avoid these snags, think about all the reasons you might not put your intention into action. Would acting on your intention be too time consuming? Too expensive? Too boring? Is your intention so vague that it's hard to know how to act on it? Are you likely to become distracted in the middle of working on the task you intend to do? Is it something you need to do but don't especially want to do?

For example, if your intention is to clean out your rain gutters at home, you might realize it would take the better part of an afternoon, require a new ladder, and be a task you dislike so much that you'd look for any escape from it, even though you know it needs to be done. Keeping these potential pitfalls in mind will help you with the next step: steering clear of them.

Plan around the pitfalls
Knowing the potential pitfalls that could keep you from accomplishing your intention, you can now create a specific plan to avoid them and actually follow through on your intention.

If, for example, not having enough time is one of your pitfalls, break the task down into steps and plan to do a bit at a time. If what you intend to do costs more than you can afford, start a savings fund specifically for that activity, and make it a priority to contribute to your fund on a regular basis. If you think you're likely to get distracted while working on your task, enlist the help of someone you trust to keep you focused and on track.

No matter what your intention or the possible pitfalls that might get in your way, make sure the outcome and purpose of the intention are clear from the start. Knowing why you're aiming to do something and what the task will look like when it's done can make it easier to commit to it from start to finish.

If you're anything like me, you'll always intend to do more than you possibly can do. And while having some big pie-in-the-sky intentions can keep our lives creative and interesting, being able to follow through on most of our intentions will help us make the most of the everyday. Good intentions and an equally good action plan pave the road onwards and upwards.