Sunday, February 25, 2007

Is It Time for a Media Diet?

Tip of the Week, February 18, 2007

My brother recently told me that one of the easiest and most effective things he's done to get organized has been allowing some of his magazine subscriptions to lapse. "I really thought I'd miss reading a few magazines in particular," he said, "but I actually haven't. Truthfully, it's been kind of a relief not having so much reading material around."

I'll never be one to advocate living a life bereft of newspapers, magazines, and other forms of information, but I definitely think my brother is onto something: there can be great benefits to going on a media diet. Here are a few of them, as well as a few simple ways to slim down the media in your life.

Benefit #1: More time for other activities
Unless you're in an industry that requires you to stay current on many newspapers, magazines, web sites, and TV programs on a regular basis, you're probably not spending huge chunks of your day consuming media. But if you audited your daily media consumption, you might be surprised to discover just how much time you spend with papers, TV, magazines, and other sources of info. Think of how you might alternately spend some of that time: perhaps you'd pick up a hobby, dedicate yourself to a large project, work through your To Do list, or simply relax with friends and family.

Benefit #2: Less guilt and stress
Though it sounds counterintuitive, sometimes overloading on information--which we ingest to be more aware of what's happening, to add interest to our lives, and to keep ourselves entertained--can cause needless guilt and stress. Think of the magazines you keep around with every intention of reading because you spent good money on them and don't want your subscription to go to waste, or the newspapers you stack up throughout the week because you fear you'll miss an important story if you don't read one of them. Chances are the feeling that you should be reading everything that comes your way causes some frustration and guilt. Are any benefits you might get from these media worth those feelings?

Benefit #3: Less clutter
Last but not least, printed media--magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and the like--can quickly become clutter, especially when they arrive on a regular basis (daily, weekly, or monthly). Limiting the amount of media you allow into your home or office can help you avoid stacks and piles.

How to go on a diet
Ready to consider going on a media diet? Remember, you don't have to go cold turkey; focus instead on paring down little by little. Start by taking a break from anything you read or watch daily, whether a newspaper or TV programs. Cut out a few days of consumption each week, or take an entire week off. When you go on vacation or know you'll be faced with a particularly busy week, stop any regular subscriptions so you won't be faced with a backlog.

Next, do an audit of the other media in your life. Are there magazines or newsletters you never seem to get around to reading? Consider letting those subscriptions lapse, or even cancelling them outright. Do you watch multiple news programs each day? Try choosing one or two of your favorites and then switching off the set. Overall, opt for the media that you find most interesting and most useful, and that add the most value to your life.

Finally, aim to resist the urge to let new forms of media into your life if you're already feeling overwhelmed. There will always be new magazines, new TV programs, and new papers, but that doesn't mean you have to experience all of them. If you do come across something that seems interesting and worthwhile, consider cutting out something else you already read or watch so you can maintain a balance.

To my mind, it's crucial to stay aware, informed, and interested; reading and keeping up with the news can help with all three of those. However, it's just as important to know when to say when, and to put your media consumption on a diet when your life gets overwhelmed by info. As with so many other things, choosing high quality forms of media over a large quantity of sources will add to your life without overwhelming it.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Why Does Organizing Take So Long?

Tip of the Week, February 11, 2007

One of the questions potential clients ask me most frequently is, "How long will my organizing project take?" Each time, I answer in the same way: there's no way of knowing for sure. That's not an attempt to skirt the question or be evasive in any way; it's the truth. It can be extremely difficult--if not downright impossible--to accurately estimate the time required to finish an organizing project.

Here are a few explanations as to why estimates don't work, why organizing sometimes requires far longer than you might think, and how to prepare ahead for a project so you can do it as efficiently as possible.

First: it's not like the TV shows
Television shows like "Clean Sweep" and "Mission: Organization" have brought a lot of attention to organizing in recent years--and in my book, that's a good thing. Many people who might have otherwise struggled with disorganization for much of their lives have been inspired by these shows to take control of their time, their space, and their stuff.

The downside of the TV shows is that they offer a very abridged look at a process that can take hours, days, weeks, months, and sometimes years. Getting--and, moreover, staying--organized doesn't happen in neat 30-minute chunks. It can be motivating to see the changes that happen on these shows, but it's crucial to remember that for every minute of work you see in a show, there are hours of work that actually had to happen.

Why don't estimates work?
At the most essential level, organizing is little more than a series of dozens (sometimes hundreds) of decisions: what to keep, what to toss, where to put things, what to label them, what containers to buy, how to structure your day, how to deal with maintenance, and on and on. For some people, these decisions are a snap to make; for others, they're akin to torture. In my experience, no two people make decisions in the exact same way or require the same amount of time to make them.

So when a client calls and asks how long it'll take to organize a home office, I can only say, "It depends": it depends on how much and what kind of stuff is in the space, what the client's goals are, and how the client makes decisions. Until the work gets underway and we get clear answers to these questions, time estimates will be outright guesses at best (and disheartening inaccuracies at worst).

Other reasons work might go slowly
Though the need to make an ongoing series of decisions is, to my mind, the number one reason organizing work often takes so long, there are other factors. Sometimes I'll start a project with a client only to find that something that needs to happen--say, the removal of an unused desk in order to bring a new filing cabinet in, or the OK from a boss, spouse, or other interested party in order to move forward--is delayed. Any tasks dependent on that delayed task also get pushed back.

Sometimes life gets in the way: illness will keep you in bed for a week, preventing you from sorting through the stuff in the garage as you'd planned to do, or work gets so busy that it's all you can do simply to stay above water--forget about devoting time to organizing. And sometimes the detailed tasks of a project--creating labels for a new filing system, entering data into a computer program, or packing up the car with things to donate to charity--just take longer than expected.

How to make the most of your organizing time
Though you might not be able to predict (or sometimes even control) the amount of time an organizing project will take, there are a few things you can do to make the most efficient use of the time you do dedicate to the project.

First, make sure you're well and truly ready--physically, financially, emotionally--before you begin. If you're just recovering from serious illness, don't try to jump into a project that requires physical exertion or contact with dust, mold, or other irritants. If you're planning to hire someone to help with the project, or if you'll need to buy new furniture or supplies to finish, make sure you can cover the project costs without having to put your finances in jeopardy. And if you'll be working on something that might be emotionally draining--sorting through things that belonged to a loved one who's recently died, for example--make sure you have the support you need throughout the project.

Second, give your project a realistic scope. Rather than aiming to reorganize the entire house, choose one room to start with; instead of revamping all of your work processes and systems at once, pick a few areas of focus, such as your filing system and your daily task list.

Finally, aim to do some prep work before you physically begin the project. I always encourage my clients to begin by strategizing and creating some guidelines: for example, they might spend some time making a list of how long to keep different types of papers before they start weeding out filing cabinets, or brainstorming tasks they could hand off to an assistant so their workday isn't perpetually crammed too full. Doing this basic decision-making up front can save time--and repeated decisions--once the project is actually underway.

Organization doesn't happen overnight--but then, neither does disorganization. Try not to be dismayed if an organizing project takes longer than you thought or hoped it would; just remember to limit the scope of the project, make sure you're ready for the undertaking, and get some of your decision-making done up front. You'll save time and frustration, and will be more likely to stick with your project to the end.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

An Easy Way to Organize Your Vital Papers

Tip of the Week, February 4, 2007

A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that if I ever had to leave my house in an emergency, I wouldn't quickly and easily be able to grab my most important papers, such as insurance documents, general financial account information, and other things I'd need if a real disaster were to happen. I also realized that it wouldn't be easy for others to locate this information if I were incapacitated in any way.

It's not that my papers weren't generally organized, but that the crucial papers were part of a larger and not entirely portable system. (I wouldn't think to roll my filing drawer out if I were fleeing the house.) So I was happy to come across a product that promised to make it relatively painless to organize my key papers: the Securita Vital Records PortaVault. I put it to the test, and here's what I thought of it.

What it is
The PortaVault is a system made up of a zipping canvas case, a three-ring binder, section dividers with information on what to store in each category, plastic document protector sleeves, printed labels to identify what you put in the sleeves, a small canvas pouch, and pre-printed forms with space for information such as emergency contacts, health histories, and disaster planning. The binder also has a shoulder strap and a plastic "raincoat."

How it works
The PortaVault is intended to hold things like wills, birth certificates, financial account information, insurance policies, and drug prescription information--in short, anything you'd be likely to need in an emergency or that others might need if you became incapacitated. The section dividers--Planning & Contacts, Identification & Family Records, Health & Medical, Finance & Property, Insurance, and Estate Planning & Taxes--provide guidelines on the documents that should go in each section, how often to update your records, and how to ensure that you're prepared in case of an emergency.

As you store documents in the PortaVault's protector sleeves, you add a pre-printed label to each sleeve to identify what's in it. (There are customizable labels, too, for anything that isn't already accounted for on the pre-printed versions.) It's also worth filling out the forms in each section so that information that might otherwise be scattered--medical histories, important contact numbers, a list of your valuables and collectibles, and so on--is stored in one place.

How long it takes
I spent a little over two hours getting acquainted with the system, reading the section dividers and other instructions, filling out the forms, and transferring things to the record protector sleeves and labeling them. If you were using the system for an entire family's records, you'd probably need a bit more time, as you would if your papers weren't in reasonably good order when you started. Of course, you could set up the system little by little over the course of a week and it likely wouldn't take you more than 15-30 minutes a day.

Why I like it
It's no secret that I'm not an especially big fan of packaged filing systems in general. The PortaVault, however, was an exception to the rule. (And for the record, I have no vested interest in the product or its parent company.) For starters, because there are far fewer categories here than with many other filing systems, I found it easier and less frustrating to use. I also like the fact that it's easy to "override" the standard recommendations on where to store things: if you think your IRA account information should go in Finance & Property rather than Taxes & Estate Planning, put it there and make a note on the system's Document Locator Form.

I was also impressed by the PortaVault's attention to small (but potentially important) details. The document protector sleeves are pleated on the outer edge, which makes it easier to store bulky documents without the sleeves curling at the sides. The binder pulls out of the canvas case so it's easy to work with. The pre-printed forms are straightforward and logical. The small zippered case (which itself clips into the binder) is a good spot for extra keys, cash, computer zip drives, and other small items that are easy to lose. And the larger case itself zips up completely, is water-resistant, and has a sturdy handle along the spine.

A few final notes
As with any system, the PortaVault requires some effort: you need to take the time to gather your papers, fill out the forms, and keep the information in the system up-to-date. After all, grabbing a binder full of outdated and inaccurate records will do you as little good as grabbing nothing at all. You also need to be sure the PortaVault is in a secure and easily accessible place--one known to everyone in your household; if it's tucked in the back of a closet or hidden in a spot only you know, it'll be much harder to get at when it's needed.

Once I made the effort to get the system set up and put it in a logical place, I found that there was a huge weight off my shoulders. I hope an earthquake, fire, or other disaster never leaves me fleeing my house on a moment's notice, or that I become incapacitated, but if either of those things should happen, I know my most important papers are in order and ready to go. That's a feeling of calm and satisfaction I highly recommend.

To find out more about the PortaVault, visit

Sunday, February 04, 2007

When, Why, and How to Bring in Help

Tip of the Week, January 28, 2007

I'm someone who loves the satisfaction of doing as much as I can for myself, learning to do new things, and independently working my way through my To Do list. But there are tasks that I don't have the skills, time, or patience to take care of, and trying to do them invariably costs me far too much in terms of effort, frustration, time, and even money. When I'm faced with such a task, I tone my self-sufficient, can-and-must-do spirit down a bit and call in help.

As skilled and efficient as you may be, I bet there are things you'd rather not (or can't, or don't want to) do on your own. The next time you come across one of those things, try seeking help. Here's when, why, and how to bring in someone else to get the job done.

Many of us wait only until we're completely overwhelmed by something before we're willing to ask someone to help with it. For others, calling in help might be an obvious choice for certain tasks (such as installing a new appliance) but less obvious for others (such as doing taxes, working through a long list of errands, or finally tackling that pile of papers on the desk).

Generally, it's worth seeking help with something if it meets at least one of these three criteria:

  • You don't have the skills to do it
  • You don't have the time to do it
  • You don't have the desire to do it

Of course, you could try to gain the necessary skills, shoehorn the task into your schedule, or propel yourself through it by sheer will, but it's important to ask yourself whether accomplishing the task on your own is worth any of those things. There's a good chance it isn't.

You might also want to seek help with large tasks (such as moving or cleaning out a basement) or when you're faced with a one-time or rare event that adds more things than normal to your To Do list (such as a family gathering or the birth of a child).

Seeking help, whether from people you hire or from family and friends, lets you take care of things that need to be done but don't necessarily need to be done by you. Sharing your workload with others gives you the time, energy, and space to focus on things only you can (or should) do.

Tasks that are especially time-consuming (such as home improvements), that you really dislike (filing, anyone?), or that you find particularly difficult to do on your own (for many, exercise is near the top of this list) are worth seeking help with. Keep in mind that "seeking help" doesn't necessarily mean "getting someone else to do it for you" (though, of course, it can); sometimes it simply means bringing in an extra pair of hands, a new perspective, or a supportive coach to make it easier to get through a task.

Think of some tasks or areas of your life that might benefit from some outside help. Here are a few common ones:

  • Childcare
  • Home maintenance/improvements
  • Financial management/tax preparation
  • Housecleaning
  • Meal planning and preparation
  • Mail, file, and paper management
  • Running errands
  • Time management
  • Home or office organization

Remember that the goal of seeking help is to offload some of those tasks you don't have the time, skills, or desire to do so you're better able to focus on the things only you can do.

Once you've chosen an area in which you want help, think of what that assistance might look like. For example, if paper management is your big headache, can you enlist the help of your spouse or another family member to help with filing once a week? Do you need an organizer to work with you to put a more efficient filing system in place? Do you want an assistant who will take care of your papers once a week?

The option you choose will depend on how much help you need, what (if anything) you're able and willing to pay for help, and whether you need skilled assistance or simply another set of hands. If you're planning to hire help, ask friends, family members, colleagues, and neighbors for recommendations. If you're looking for pro bono help from friends or family, offer to reciprocate; you might, for example, lend your talents as a chef to a friend who's willing to paint your bathroom, or buy pizza and beer for neighbors who help clean out your garage.

As you seek help for the tasks you don't have the time, skills, or desire to do, you'll find that you're better able to focus on the things that you enjoy or that you really need to do. You might also discover that you're helping someone else along the way, whether by providing income to a professional or by lending your own skills to friends and family members who need them.