Sunday, October 28, 2007

Wanted: Your Organizing Woes

Tip of the Week, October 21, 2007

Often, my Tips of the Week stem from specific organizing problems clients, friends, family members, and Tip subscribers have shared with me. These organizing frustrations get my creative juices flowing and my problem-solving instincts piqued.

So this week, rather than offering a Tip, I’m asking to hear from you. What are your organizing challenges? What frustrates you? What overwhelms you? What areas of your home or office don’t ever seem to work well? What do you wish you had better (or any) storage for? What regular tasks seem to be more difficult, and to take longer, than they should because you don’t have functional systems for them? What can you never seem to find, though you’re sure you have it? What do you wish you could do that you currently can’t do because of disorganization? What Tip haven’t you seen that you’d like to?

Drop me a line (info at organizedlife dot org) and challenge me to create solutions to your problems. Your organizing woes may well become my next Tip!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Regain Control over Your E-mail Inbox

Tip of the Week, October 7, 2007

E-mail is meant to be a tool that provides a quick, inexpensive (usually free), paper-less way of communicating and exchanging information. Often, it’s precisely that, and it makes our lives simpler and richer as a result. But e-mail can easily become a cause of headaches, stress, and digital clutter: we receive too many messages, can’t find the ones we really need among the ones we don’t, and get stuck when it comes to deciding what to do with the messages that fill up our Inboxes. E-mail may not take up any physical space, but it can still cause clutter—and all of the frustrations that go along with it.

This week, make it a goal to regain control over your Inbox. These tips will show you how.

Learn to prioritize
There are some e-mail messages that unquestionably merit your attention, and that deserve to be in your Inbox, such as messages about pressing work-related issues, notes about personal or family matters you need to deal with, reminders of important appointments and events on the near horizon. For most of us, though, these types of messages comprise a small percentage of what actually lands in our boxes. The rest of our e-mail is much less important, and should be treated accordingly.

The first step in taking back your Inbox, then, is to prioritize the types of messages you get on an average day. List those that are truly critical or urgent (memos from your boss, for example, or time-sensitive notes from your child’s school), as well as those that aren’t (sale notices, newsletters, announcements of travel deals, and so on). Aim to get in the habit of giving the less pressing stuff a quick read and then filing it in a folder (more on that in a moment) or deleting it; if reading these messages takes up too much time, move them to a folder en masse, unread. The bulk of the time and attention you devote to e-mail should be directed toward the messages you’ve deemed most pressing.

Don’t be afraid to delete
I occasionally work with clients whose Inboxes are full to brimming, often with more than 1000 messages. Needless to say, it’s a challenge to find anything, and the sheer size of the Inbox’s contents tends to be overwhelming and utterly daunting. As we go through the messages that have accumulated, we often find ones that are of absolutely no use: announcements of store sales that happened months prior, one-liners from colleagues or friends thanking the sender for passing along a web page or a bit of information, sometimes even spam. The clients hold onto these messages because they think they might need them someday, or because they haven’t taken the time to process the e-mail, decide that it’s unneeded, and delete it.

Are there e-mail messages you might need (or want) someday? You bet: legal and financial notices that don’t exist in other forms, information about various accounts you hold both online and off, even heartfelt notes from friends and family members. Old event announcements, sale notices, unread newsletters, and, of course, spam are almost never worth keeping, and they just become Inbox clutter. Keep this clutter at bay by training yourself to make decisions on what’s worth keeping and what isn’t, and to delete the stuff in the latter category pronto.

Use folders and filters
Almost every e-mail program available today offers the ability to create some form of folders and filters. These tools let you categorize your e-mail, organize the messages you want to keep, and prevent your Inbox from overflowing. Folders are the electronic equivalent of what’s in your offline file drawers: places to put specific messages (those from a certain person, for example, or those related to a project you’re working on) so those messages don’t get lost in your Inbox. Create folders relevant to the types of e-mail messages you receive, and categorize them in a way that’s logical and easy for you to use. Some e-mail programs let you create subfolders; these are helpful if you opt to create folders with broad categories, or if you need to separate the contents of folders by different dates, senders, or other criteria.

Filters route messages to specific folders as soon as the e-mails are received. For example, you could set up a filter to deliver all organizing Tips of the Week directly to a Tips (or Organizing, or Newsletters) folder, rather than to your Inbox. Filters are useful for weeding out messages that aren’t pressing from those that are; with fewer less important e-mail messages in your Inbox, it will be easier to focus on the ones that really demand your attention. (Of course, if you prefer, you can also use filters to deliver important messages directly to specific folders, rather than to your general Inbox. If you receive large quantities of e-mail each day, try setting up filters to reduce what lands in your Inbox.

Take action
The e-mail messages that sit in your Inbox should be current and active—reminders of things you need to do, read, or attend. To make your Inbox a truly useful tool, you need to use it in conjunction with some kind of To Do list, whether on your computer, on a PDA, or on paper. When an e-mail comes in that requires action, write that action on your To Do list. When you’ve finished a task, move the related e-mail message out of your Inbox: delete it if you don’t need it, or transfer it to a folder if you do. Set aside time each week to review both your To Do list and your Inbox to make sure messages (and the tasks related to them) aren’t languishing.

Purge at the source
Finally, take a look at the non-essential messages you get over the course of a month and reconsider whether you should continue to receive them. If there are newsletters you never read, sale announcements from stores you don’t frequent, travel notices from airlines you don’t fly, or any other subscription-based messages you don’t need, unsubscribe from them. In addition, think twice before subscribing to something new. In almost every case, you’ll be able to find the relevant information (a newsletter, a sale notice, etc.) on the web should you truly need it, and you won’t have to deal with extraneous messages cluttering your Inbox.

Regaining control over your e-mail takes some time and effort, but the payoff will be an Inbox that’s clear, functional, and much more pleasant to use.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Reconnect with Your Stuff

Tip of the Week, September 30, 2007

When you’re around anything for long enough, you eventually grow accustomed to it, may stop noticing it, and might even forget that it’s there. This can sometimes be a good thing, but when it comes to organization, growing blind to your stuff makes it easy for clutter to accumulate. It’s important, then, to take the time every few months to reconnect with the things around you. Here’s how to approach that process in a realistic and effective way.

Start slow and small
Though it might be tempting to go all out and sort through every last thing in your home or office in one sitting, you’d quickly burn yourself out if you actually attempted such a feat. Worse yet, you might wind up shoving everything into the back of a closet or deep into the recesses of a desk drawer, which would be a significant step backwards. Rather than going whole hog, choose a specific room or area to start in, and work from there. For example, you might opt to begin in your dining room, or perhaps with the contents of the credenza in your office. Once you’ve made progress in one area, take a breather before moving on to the next.

Touch everything
When you’ve chosen a room or area to work in, aim to touch everything in that space as you go through this process. It’s very easy to focus our attention only on the things we know we like and/or the things we know we don’t, but for this exercise to be as effective as possible, it’s important to broaden the scope. This means that if you’re working in the dining room, you should open every drawer and cabinet and take a serious look inside; in your office, empty your junk drawer and sort through everything you come across. Does this take time? Absolutely, which is why it’s key to work in small batches. Does it pay off? Unquestionably. When’s the last time you really considered how many of the dozens of writing implements crowding the pencil cup on your desk deserve to be there?

Think in terms of connections
The goal behind this process is not to rid your space entirely of stuff, or to put everything you own out on display. Rather, it’s to put you back in touch with things you may have forgotten about or grown overly accustomed to so that you can determine what you actually feel connected to and what you don’t. Try thinking of this as you would a high school reunion. At such a reunion, you’d encounter a few different types of people: close friends with whom you’ve stayed in touch and who you enjoy having as part of your life, people you see occasionally and are polite to but don’t feel any particular affinity for, and former classmates whom you’d forgotten about and would just as soon not run into again. You can use these same broad categories to determine what stuff to hold onto and what to let go of: keep the good friends, bid the undesirables adieu, and decide whether the acquaintances are really worth the time, space, and effort required to keep them around, or whether you’d truly prefer to let them go.

Have a plan for what to do once you’ve decided
When you’ve chosen what gets to stay and what doesn’t, it’s crucial to have a solid plan for what to do with things that fall into the latter category. Remember, letting things you’ve decided to get rid of sit around in your home or office increases exponentially the chances that they’ll get reabsorbed. And on the flip side, if you rediscover things you truly love but had forgotten about, or that had been displaced by stuff you’re now getting rid of, you’ll want to give them pride of place. So set aside time to get the unwanteds out of your space—whether by bringing them to a donation drop-off point, passing them along to a friend or neighbor who can use them, or including them in a yard sale—and to make sure the things you love and will use are easily accessible.

Do it regularly
As with any task, the longer the stretches of time between these reconnecting sessions, the more overwhelming they’re likely to be. Scheduling them regularly means they’ll eventually take less and less time. You might plan these sessions at the start of each season, right before or after school vacations, around significant family or work milestones, or in conjunction with other events that happen a few times a year. After a while, reconnecting with your stuff will become a habit, and you might even choose to do it more frequently; in any case, aim to do it more than once a year.

To make sure that you’re allowing into your life only things you need, use, love, or find beautiful, take the time to reconnect with your stuff. You’ll get the chance to let go of what’s weighing you down and find renewed enjoyment in the things that are really meaningful to you.