Sunday, August 27, 2006

How to Prepare for a Housesitter

Tip of the Week, August 20, 2006

When you're planning to be away from your home for more than a few days--or even if you're just heading out for the weekend but have pets or plants that need special care--it makes sense to arrange for a housesitters. A housesitter, whether a friend or neighbor or a professional, can take care of regular maintenance, keep your home secure, and generally offer peace of mind while you're gone.

To make things as smooth and easy as possible for both you and your sitter, take the time to create a basic guide. Here's how.

Decide what you need your sitter to do
Do you only need someone to swing by the house every few days to bring in the mail and water the plants, or are you hoping your sitter will stay on site the whole time you're away, caring for pets, keeping up with daily tasks, and keeping the house running just as it does when you're there? Before you approach a potential sitter, create a list of the things you want him or her to do; this list can then become the basis of a checklist to leave for the housesitter while you're gone.

Also, spend some time thinking about ground rules. If you only need your sitter to come in for a few minutes each day, would it be OK for him or her to stay longer to take a swim in your pool? If the housesitter will be staying at your home while you're away, can he or she have the run of the house, or are there certain rooms, appliances, and foods that are off-limits? Establishing clear ground rules up front will help avoid misunderstandings and potential frustrations later on.

Gather info the housesitter will need
Once you have a list of your housesitter's responsibilities, collect any information he or she will need in order to take care of them. If, for example, you want the sitter to be around when the lawnmowing service and housekeeper come, include the professionals' names, the days and times they're scheduled to arrive, and a way to get in touch with them. If your sitter will be responsible for pet care, leave detailed instructions on feeding times, what to feed each pet, whether pets are allowed outside, and so on.

Detail your home's foibles
Does your house creak and groan in the wind? Do you have an alarm system that needs to be turned on and off? Is there a trick to using your stove? Is the switch for your front porch light hard to find if you don't know where to look? Spend some time thinking about what someone unfamiliar with your home would need to know about it, and list anything that will be relevant to your housesitter's tasks. If your appliances, alarm systems, lights, or locks are challenging to master, leave user's manuals or detailed instructions.

List important dates, names, and numbers
Let your housesitter know where you're going, when you'll be back, and how to reach you while you're gone. (It's also worth establishing why the sitter should get in touch with you: do you want a general daily check-in, or would you rather be left alone unless there's a significant emergency that requires your attention?) Include other important information the sitter might need, such as the names and phone numbers of trusted neighbors or contact info for your pets' vet.

Write it down, bring it together, and take a tour
Before you leave, make sure to write down all of the information you've gathered in the steps above and to store it all in one place (such as a notebook, a 3-ring binder, or a folder). Arrange a time to review the information in person with your housesitter, giving him or her a tour of your home in the process. That way you can demonstrate how to work tricky appliances, can show the sitter just where extra supplies are stored, and can answer any questions that come up. When it comes time to leave on your trip, you'll know that your housesitter is familiar with your home and well prepared to care for it.

The next time you head out of town and enlist someone to watch your house, take the time to do a bit of prep work ahead of time. In exchange for your efforts, you'll be able to spend your time away doing things other than worrying about what's happening back home.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

5 More Quick and Painless Organizing Projects

Tip of the Week, August 13, 2006

Sure, some organizing projects take lots of time and effort, but others require little more than 20 minutes and a bit of focus. Here are five projects you can do fairly quickly and painlessly. Looking for more? Check out this Tip from last March.

  • Go on an e-mail purging spree. Because e-mail doesn't take up any physical space, it tends to be something we don't often think about weeding out. But e-mail clutter can be just as frustrating as physical clutter. Set aside some time to sort through your Inbox this week, deleting messages you no longer need and moving those you want to keep to mail folders. While you're at it, do an audit of the newsletters and other regular e-mails you receive, and unsubscribe from any that no longer interest you.
  • Clean out your purse, wallet, or briefcase. Your wallet may not be as out of control as George Costanza's was on Seinfeld, but chances are it could benefit from a bit of attention. Take out anything you don't need on a regular basis (including receipts, used tickets, and expired cards). If your wallet looks a bit worse for the wear and tear, consider investing in a new one. Then follow suit with your purse, briefcase, or computer bag: chuck the stuff you don't need, replace the stuff you do, and make any necessary upgrades.
  • Take a look through your desk drawers. Can't remember quite what's lurking inside your desk? Take some time to sort through a drawer or two. Bid adieu to unworking pens and nubby pencils, mostly-used pads of paper, and other supplies that aren't worth keeping. After you've weeded, move things close to where you use them; if you're constantly digging into the bottom drawer for a stapler, for instance, consider giving it pride of place in your top or middle drawer. This can also be a good time to add drawer dividers or small bins to hold supplies if you find that things tend to ooze together inside your drawers.
  • Sort through your summer clothes. Though it's not yet time to pack away your shorts and t-shirts, it is far enough into the summer that you can accurately tell which clothes you've worn this season and which you haven't. Things that haven't left your drawers or closet over the past ten weeks probably won't see the light of day in the next three, so it may be time to send them packing. Also consider pulling out anything that's worn, uncomfortable, ill-fitting, or so out of style that you can't imagine wearing it again.
  • Weed out your toiletries. Whether there are countless bottles lurking in the bottom of your linen closet or just a few mystery items under the sink, sorting through your toiletries and personal care products is a quick and easy way to organize your bathroom. Decide up front what to keep (full bottles of products you'll actually use, for example), what to toss (mostly empty packages of what-is-that-stuff), and where to store what stays. As with your desk drawers, it's worth devoting your bathroom's valuable "real estate" to the things you use most often, moving less-used items to harder-to-access spots.

Pick one or two of these projects, put on some music you enjoy, and spend 30 minutes getting organized. The end results are sure to be worth the small amount of time and effort.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Making Multi-Tasking Work

Tip of the Week, August 13, 2006

Multi-tasking is splendid in theory: by doing several things at once, you increase your efficiency, make better use of your time, and get more done. In practice, of course, things are rarely quite so rosy, and multi-tasking can mean heaps of half-completed tasks, an inaccurate sense of how long things actually take, and the frustrating sense that you're never really getting much done.

This week, we'll take a look at what multi-tasking means, what its downsides can be, and how to make it work for you if it's unavoidable.

Multi-tasking defined
If you've ever talked on the phone while checking e-mail, cooking dinner, or researching something online, you've multi-tasked. At its most basic, multi-tasking involves doing two unrelated things at the same time; the term is also used to mean shifting between multiple tasks that aren't necessarily happening all at once. In a culture that places immense value on the idea of getting more done in less time, multi-tasking has come to seem like a necessary skill.

The downsides
The thought of being able to complete several tasks in a short span of time--or to move effortlessly among them--is a seductive one. It's disappointing, then, to realize that multi-tasking rarely works as we hope it will. Trying to attend to two unrelated tasks at the same time, or to switch rapidly between them, means we're not giving either task our full attention. This can be annoying at the least (ever try to have a phone conversation with someone who's clearly typing while talking?) and counterproductive--if not outright destructive--at worst: think of an unattended casserole burning in the oven, a document that's full of errors because it never got the attention or the proofreading it needed, or a mid-day meltdown after you've tried to do one too many things.

In many cases, multi-tasking is less effective and less efficient than the practice of completing one task before moving on to the next. The next time you try to juggle two or more tasks at the same time, ask yourself whether you'd save time, stress, and frustration by keeping them separate.

Dealing with unavoidable multi-tasking
In the real world, of course, it's unlikely you'll be able to avoid multi-tasking altogether. There will always be times when two (or three, or more) things demand your attention at once, and it may not be possible to put tasks on hold. When you can't avoid multi-tasking, use these three tips to make it as effective as it can be.

  • Set a time limit. When you need to shift gears from one task to another--or to do two tasks at once--give yourself a deadline for returning to the original task. For example, if you receive an important phone call while you're in the middle of writing a proposal for a client, let the caller know you're only able to talk for ten minutes; at the end of ten minutes, politely but firmly end the call, making plans to follow up later if need be.

  • Keep tabs on what you were doing. Before shifting your attention away from the task you were working on before you were interrupted, take a moment to note where you were, what your next step was going to be, and where to pick up when you come back to the task. If you're pulled away from dinner prep by a child clamoring for your attention, for example, take a second to remind yourself that you were just about to move on to step three of your recipe; when you return to cooking, you'll know what's next.

  • Use stop-loss measures. At the very least, make sure multi-tasking doesn't undo any progress you've already made. Stop-loss measures--turning down the stove before answering the phone, say, or saving the document you're writing before chatting with the colleague who comes into your office--can help ensure that you don't wind up farther back than where you were.

Whenever possible, think twice about multi-tasking, and consider focusing instead on doing tasks sequentially and separately; you may well get more done and experience less stress in the process. When you can't avoid multi-tasking, though, setting (and sticking to) limits, keeping tabs, and putting stop-loss measures in place can help you do what you need to do efficiently and effectively.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Worthwhile Organizing Investments

Tip of the Week, July 30, 2006

It's entirely possible to get organized on the cheap, and I often encourage my clients to resist the urge to throw money at their disorganization by buying fancy new organizing gadgets, books, and supplies they probably don't need. That said, there are a few organizing investments that can help make the process more efficient, more effective, and less frustrating.

Here are four smart ways to invest in organization.

Hire professional help for difficult or time-consuming tasks.
Many of us strive to be as self-sufficient as we can in terms of completing the tasks we need to do to get or stay organized, ignoring the fact that what takes us four hours (and several headaches) might well take a professional half an hour. Service pros like handypeople, housecleaners, bookkeepers, and personal assistants can often quickly and easily do the tasks that linger on your To Do list for weeks because you don't have the time or inclination to get to them. A few hours of a professional's time can free you up to do more important, more pressing, or more enjoyable tasks.

Get the right containers and tools for the job.
If you're storing papers you want to keep in moldering cardboard boxes in the basement or are trying to cram detailed scheduling information into a tiny pocket-sized calendar, you're making organizing harder than it needs to be. Though containers and tools in and of themselves can't get you organized, using the right product--rather than trying to force the wrong one to make do--can have a big impact. Invest in products that do what you need them to do, hold what they need to hold, and aren't a chore to use, and you'll save yourself serious amounts of stress immediately.

Upgrade your supporting organizational gadgets.
There's no need to make your home or office look like an organizing products showroom, but there are definite benefits to making small upgrades to the organizational supplies you use. For example, switching from the wire hangers you get from your dry cleaner to basic plastic or wood hangers will make your closets look neater and also make it easier to find and put things away. Trading in the warped, bent, and torn file folders you've been using for years for clean new folders with reinforced tabs will help make filing less of a chore, and will help keep your papers better protected. Again, you don't have to buy the fanciest stuff you can find or spend tons of money to make an appreciable impact.

Let go of anything you're keeping only because "it cost good money."
Admit it: somewhere in your home is something you're holding onto not because you love it, use it, or need it, but because you (or someone else) once spent a good chunk of money on it. I challenge you to think of getting rid of that thing as an investment in a more organized and less cluttered future. Whether you sell the item and recoup some of the original expense, donate it and get a tax break, or simply give it to someone who will actually put it to use, parting with it will help free you from whatever guilt, frustration, or annoyance holding onto it might cause. You'll also clear out space in your home and will have one less unused thing to deal with.

For the most part, getting and staying organized are inexpensive ventures, and you certainly don't need to spend a lot to get your life, stuff, and calendar in order. Consider making a few of the investments above, though, and you might find that organization is easier, less stressful, and more enjoyable. Invest wisely in organizing and you'll almost certainly reap a return.