Monday, June 26, 2006

Confessions of a Sometimes-Disorganized Organizer

Tip of the Week, June 18, 2006

One of the most common (and understandable) things people assume about me is that, as a professional organizer, I must be an extremely organized person. Surely my house is eternally ready for an unannounced visit by photographers from Real Simple magazine, my To Do list is perfectly up-to-date, and my desk is neat as a pin.

The truth, dear readers, is a bit more nuanced. Yes, I'm generally good about keeping things in order, I live an uncluttered life, and I have systems in place for getting things done when they need to be done. But I'm far from perfect. Below are four confessions of my sometimes-disorganized ways, along with the things I do to get myself back on track when I need to.

I sometimes lose or misplace things.
After meeting with a client recently, I walked out to my car, dug through my bag to find my keys, and looked through my car window to see them sitting placidly on the seat, safely locked inside. I've also recently managed to misplace a parking garage ticket and to completely lose an invitation to a party.

How I get back on track: I have a backup plan, and I aim to learn from my mistakes. In the case of my car key, what saved my hide was the wallet-friendly copy of the key I'd had made at the AAA office, just in case I ever locked myself out. After losing the party invite, I called a friend who was also attending and asked him to send me the RSVP info. And I ultimately found my parking ticket, but the experience of spending 15 frantic minutes looking for it convinced me to be mindful of putting it somewhere memorable as soon as I get it the next time I drive into the garage.

There are piles on my desk. And my dining table.
Do I have a generally functional system that lets me store important papers and things to do before I actually do them? Yes. Does that mean I'm eternally pile-free? No way. There's almost always a pile of something or other on my desk, and sometimes it has mates on my dining table, my printer, my ottoman, the floor...

How I get back on track: Believing as I do that not all piles are bad, I try to cut myself some slack here. Often what winds up on my desk is indeed something I'll need within the next few days, and sometimes it's just easier to keep it under my fingertips than to put it away and take it out again. That said, I make a point of going through all of my piles at least a few times a week and doing a survey of the contents. I act on the things that need action, store the stuff I won't use soon, and put notes on my To Do list as reminders to deal with whatever remains.

How about that To Do list, anyway?
Here's something that won't shock anyone: putting a task on your To Do list doesn't necessarily mean you'll do it. There are many entries on my list that somehow seem to migrate from week to week, patiently waiting for me to check them off and give them some respite. I'm great about making lists of stuff to do, and far less great about un-making them.

How I get back on track: I create new To Do lists a few times a week, and force myself to put the tasks carried over from the previous list right at the top. Rewriting the same tasks over a few times--and seeing them constantly lurk on list after list--is generally enough to kick me into gear. If I still find myself procrastinating on certain tasks, I break them down into smaller parts so I can at least make progress on them, even if I don't finish them altogether.

It took me four days to unpack after my last trip.
I came home from New York early last week and immediately jumped into a busy week of client visits, meetings, errands, and tasks. In the meantime, my suitcase sat accusingly on my bedroom floor, its contents spread about the room. The same sometimes happens with stuff I bring home from the store, or laundry I've been air drying: it hangs out for days on end, impatiently waiting to be put away.

How I get back on track: I harness the power of annoyance. While I can put up with anything for a while--a mess on my bedroom floor, clothes hanging out on the end of my bed, stuff popping up in odd places throughout the house--sooner or later I yearn for neatness and visual calm. When I've had enough of things looking messy and disorganized, it takes very little to convince me to put in the effort to put stuff where it belongs. And it's always worth it.

The truth is out: I have my own disorganized foibles. But I've learned to let them trip me up without throwing me into chaos, and I encourage you to do the same: the next time you lock your keys in your car or feel a sense of dread when you look at your To Do list, turn your focus away from how you've stumbled and toward what you can do to get yourself back on track.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Six Ways to Keep Summer Plane Travel Sane

Tip of the Week, June 4 and 11, 2006

Welcome to the summer travel season, when planes get fuller, airports get busier, and both temperatures and tempers rise. Unless you're flying first class all the way, have a valet to ferry your bags, and can walk through a crowded airport with a sense of divine calm, you're bound to encounter a stressful situation somewhere along the line. However, these six tips can help keep your summertime air travel cooler and calmer.

  1. Choose less popular flights. Overcrowded planes can be a big cause of travel headaches. The fuller a plane is, the more likely it is to leave late (due to longer boarding times), run out of overhead storage space, and generally serve as a great reminder of some of the downsides of air travel. To avoid the hassle, consider choosing a flight at a less desirable time (such as early morning or late evening), or from or to an alternate, lesser-used airport.
  2. Check in online. More and more airlines now allow online check-in, often up to 24 hours in advance. You can print your boarding pass from home or the office and, if you're not checking bags, go directly to security at the airport, bypassing the ticket counter altogether. (If you are checking bags, look for self-serve kiosks at the airport where you can drop off your luggage with airline staff.)
  3. Arrive on time. Having recently sprinted through the Los Angeles airport with a friend to avoid missing our flight, I can tell you firsthand that it's no fun to arrive at an airport late. Plan your arrival so that you have plenty of time to check in (if you haven't done so online), make it through security, and arrive at your gate before final call.
  4. Carry on whenever possible. Checking bags can be a stressful experience at both ends of the process and can add significantly to your total travel time. Whenever you can, aim to bring only carry-on luggage (one small-ish suitcase and one "personal item"--a purse, briefcase, or laptop bag--per person). You won't have to worry about lost, damaged, or delayed bags, and you can get into and out of the airport much more quickly.
  5. Be security smart. Security lines are often major bottlenecks at airports. You can make the screening process more efficient by being ready for it. In the U.S., you'll be asked to remove your jacket, and possibly your shoes, before going through the metal detector; you'll also need to hold on to your boarding pass. Laptops and video cameras need to go through the screening machine separate from other items, so make sure they're easy to retrieve from your bags. Also, double-check the TSA's List of Prohibited Items to be sure you're not carrying anything that's not allowed onboard.
  6. Bring food and entertainment. Finally, you can make your trip more enjoyable by bringing snacks and things to do on the plane. Most airlines have now entirely phased out food service in the economy cabin on domestic flights, though some do offer food for purchase. If you're traveling on a long flight, bring either your own snacks or enough cash to cover the cost of buying something onboard. And keep yourself from going bats (or resorting to watching the bad in-flight movie yet again) by bringing books, magazines, music players, or other forms of entertainment. (This is doubly important if you're traveling with children!) Long flights will seem even longer if you're hungry or bored.

Put these six tips to work this summer to make air travel a calmer, cooler, more enjoyable experience. Happy contrails!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Overcoming Procrastination on Difficult Projects

Tip of the Week, May 28, 2006

Sooner or later, we all fall prey to procrastination, putting off things we either want or (more commonly) need to do until they start to loom ominously and stressfully over us. There are dozens of causes of procrastination, and nearly as many ways to overcome them. In this week's tip, the first in an occasional series, we'll look at one cause of putting things off and three ways to beat it.

The Cause: The task or project you're faced with is large, hard to define, or difficult to start on

Plan summer vacation. Remodel living room. Create filing system. Write report on Williams Company. These are the sorts of tasks that often fall victim to serious delays: they're big, may not have a clear scope or purpose, and can seem to lack a starting point.

Solution #1: Give your task a name and a purpose
Defining your task involves more than choosing a name; it also involves figuring out the task's ultimate purpose. What do you want the task's outcome to be: a positive performance review at work, a sense of personal satisfaction, a more organized office? What results or milestones will prove that you've completed the task successfully? Does your task contribute to a larger goal? Asking yourself these questions can help bring clarity and focus to projects that seem ill-defined or hard to understand.

Solution #2: Break tasks down
When faced with a huge task that has many steps, most of us will do whatever we can to avoid it; a sense of overwhelm can be a serious hurdle to getting things done. I see this time and time again with my clients: they want to get organized and are committed to the process but are floored by the magnitude of the task. So the first thing I do is help them break things down.

Take a look at an especially large project you need to deal with and ask yourself what the small steps or tasks within the project might be. For example, if you were planning a vacation, your mini-projects might include deciding where to go, settling on a date and trip length, booking airplane tickets and hotels, and researching things to do at your destination. Putting each of these tasks on a To Do list and working through them one at a time is much less daunting than trying to plan your entire vacation in one fell swoop.

Solution #3: Pick a starting point
Finally, it's easy to be done in by tasks--no matter how large or small--that don't have an evident starting point. Not knowing where or how to begin something makes it much more difficult to do. Choosing a starting point (in conjunction with at least one of the solutions above) can help make your tasks easier to handle.

For example, if you're faced with a living room remodel, you might start by listing the things about your current space that you'd like to change: perhaps it feels too dark, doesn't have enough seating space, or has outdated furniture or decor. Your list of dislikes can then help you break down the project accordingly. Similarly, if you're working on reorganizing your desk, start by figuring out what frustrates you and how you'd like your workspace to look, function, and feel. Once you get started on a difficult or large project, you might find that it takes on its own momentum.

Procrastination can be a difficult habit to break, but increasing your awareness of why you procrastinate, and starting to make changes accordingly, can help you get past it. Look for more procrastination causes and solutions in Tips over the coming months.