Sunday, March 29, 2009

Create a Home Management Binder

Tip of the Week, March 22, 2009

At many hotels and inns, you'll find a folder or binder on the desk in each guest room with information about the hotel's amenities, instructions on operating things like the air conditioner and TV, and listings of local attractions, restaurants, and services. Creating a similar binder for your home can put important info about your house at your fingertips and can make it easier for guests, babysitters, and others who may not be familiar with your home to feel comfortable.

Here are some ideas on info to include in your binder and how to put it together.

What to Include
Your household management binder can be as simple or as involved as you'd like. If you frequently have guests, you may want to create two binders: one for you and your family, and one for your visitors.

Here's some useful information to include in your main household binder:
  • Checklists for things like home maintenance tasks to do each season, grocery shopping lists, and travel prep checklists
  • User guides and manuals for appliances and electronics you use frequently; if your manuals are too bulky to store all together in a binder, you might want to keep them elsewhere and stash only the Quick Start or Basic guides in the binder
  • Schedules for various family members, including things like after school activity schedules for your kids and work travel schedules for you and/or your spouse or partner
  • Contact information for immediate family members, emergency contacts, and close friends and neighbors
If a nanny or sitter will be using the binder, you might also want to include info on things like food allergies, daily schedules (dinnertime, bedtime, etc.), and guidelines for play dates.

Creating a guest binder? Include instructions on using whatever appliances or electronics your guests might encounter (such as the heater and alarm clock in your guest bedroom), information on local attractions, maps, and perhaps a guide to your favorite nearby cafes and restaurants.

Binder Supplies
When you're ready to assemble your binder, gather together these supplies:
  • 1 or 2 3-ring binders (depending on whether you're creating only a family binder or a guest binder as well); if you'll be storing a lot of info in your binder, look for one with a 2- or 3-inch spine.
  • Plastic sheet protectors (open on top). Look for heavy-duty versions if you'll be using them to hold bulky user guides or other heavy items.
  • A 3-hole punch
  • Tabbed dividers; these will make it easy to divide your binder into sections so you can easily flip to what you need
You might also want to create a label for the spine and/or the front of the binder. This can be a fun project for kids to help with.

Building Your Binder
With your information and supplies gathered in one spot, assembling your binder will be a snap. Divide the info you're going to include into sections and create a labeled divider for each section. Hole-punch any full-size papers such as activity schedules or contact lists. Slip loose things like booklets, business cards, and brochures into sheet protectors. (If you have lots of business cards or other very small pieces of paper, you might want to invest in a few sheet protectors with pockets for things of this sort.)

Store your binder in an easy-to-access place, and make sure anyone who might need to refer to it knows where it is. (A guest bedroom, if you have one, is the perfect spot for a guest binder. No guest room? Store the binder on a bookshelf with regional travel books.)

Keep It Updated
Finally, take a few minutes on a regular basis to make sure the information in your binder is up-to-date. If you're using it to store things like grocery lists and family schedules, it's worth updating your binder on a weekly basis; otherwise, plan to check it once a month. During your review, weed out any info that's no longer relevant and add updated lists and schedules. Be sure to take a look through your user guides and manuals when you get a new piece of equipment or get rid of an old one.

Creating a household management binder is a quick, easy, and inexpensive way of bringing more order to your home and your schedule. Rather than wasting time searching for the information you need, you'll have it at your fingertips, freeing you to focus on more important things.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

What I Learned from My Time Audit

Tip of the Week, March 15, 2009

My week-long time audit has come to an end (see last week's Tip for an introduction), and I now have a record of how I spent almost every 30-minute chunk of those seven days. Here are a few challenges I ran into along the way, some insights I gained from tracking my time so closely, and a few changes I'd like to make based on where I've been spending my time.

Challenges
As I mentioned last week, one of the purposes of a time audit is to get a clear sense of what you're doing with relatively small chunks of time. The tracking tool I used (a simple paper chart; see the Time Management section of my Links and Resources page to download a copy) was broken down into half-hour increments, which meant checking in frequently to see where my time was going. I was surprised to discover that this was much harder than I thought it would be. When I'm doing tasks that don't have a set time limit, such as answering e-mail, reading, and writing, I'm very used to simply sitting down at my computer and letting the minutes (and hours!) drift away.

Though I was, relatively speaking, much more conscious of keeping tabs on unstructured time last week, there are still several holes in my time audit chart where I know I was doing something--most likely something computer-based--but can't accurately recall what.

Another challenge was chunking tasks so that I could focus on a bunch of related things--say, e-mails to clients--at once, rather than having these spread throughout the day. I'm much too used to tackling tasks in the order in which they come to me, regardless of what they are or how they're related to each other.

Insights
Well, yikes. What do I spend much, much too much time on? E-mail, hands down. I get dozens of messages each day, and tend to play a constant game of catch-up in terms of reading, processing, and deleting them. There are several hours-long chunks of time on my audit chart that were devoted mainly to e-mail, and many smaller chunks as well. I have plenty of projects I could be focusing if I stepped away from e-mail for longer amounts of time each day; I'd also probably be more efficient if I tackled e-mail in a few larger chunks rather than continuously throughout the day.

My audit also showed that I spent a lot of time last week on volunteer work. I'm currently on the Board of Directors for three groups that mean a lot to me (my local NAPO chapter, BCPO, and a San Francisco-based group called Shanti). Last week I spent several hours doing work for each of them. This work is enjoyable and important, to be sure, but I realize I need to do a better job of keeping tabs on it and on setting aside non-critical tasks related to it when I have more pressing things to do.

Changes
I am determined to stop e-mail from eating my time! I have no delusions about this being easy, as e-mail has been a central part of my day for more than 10 years now. Though I'm not willing to stop checking e-mail in the morning, as doing so lets me see what's ahead of me for the day and whether there's anything new I need to be aware of, I am committing myself to turning my e-mail program off more often and to limiting the number of times I check for new messages.

Another change I want to implement: doing a better job at chunking my tasks. It's easier for me to do a bunch of similar tasks one after the other, and it also helps me focus better on those tasks.

Finally, I want to continue to increase my awareness of whether one area of my life is getting too much attention, to the detriment of other areas. Is there a reasonable balance in each week between client work, business administration and development, volunteering, personal care, and fun? Are there days in which things seem totally out of whack--and, if so, what can I do the next day to help restore balance? Am I accomplishing each week what I hope to accomplish?

Doing a time audit has heightened my awareness not only of how I'm spending each day, but also of where little (and large) inefficiencies creep in. Armed with this awareness, I hope I'm better able to structure my days in a way that's still comfortable and not overly strict, but at the same time more productive.

If you've undertaken a time audit, what have you learned? What insights have you gained? What would you like to start doing differently? What's working well? E-mail me and let me know.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Track Your Tasks with a Time Audit

Tip of the Week, March 8, 2009

More and more often these days I find myself expressing surprise at the fact that the year is as far along as it is, when I'm sure that it was January 1 just yesterday. Where does the time go?!

While that question is, in some ways, a rhetorical one, it's also one that got me thinking. Where does my time go each week? At the end of the week, when I've checked countless things off my To Do list (or, sometimes, truth be told, shunted them off on the following week's list), have I really accomplished the tasks I hoped to get to? Have I spent my time well? Did one particular area of my life or my business get more focus than it deserved, leaving other areas out in the cold?

To help answer some of these questions, and to gain some clarity about how I'm really spending each day, I've undertaken a time audit to track what I'm doing. Here's how I'm going about it, and how you can perform your own audit.

Choose a tracking method
Google "time audit" and you're likely to come across a wide array of charts, lists, and other ways to track your time. Some of these are fairly complex, with formulas for tracking what your time is worth (based on what you're earning each day, for example), while others are fairly basic. I printed out a Time Use Chart from the University of Minnesota Duluth that strikes a balance between enough detail and too much. It's divided into seven days, and each day is split into 30-minute chunks.

You can, of course, create your own chart, use a spreadsheet, or use whatever calendar system you currently use, whether paper or digital. Just be sure the method you choose has space enough to detail what you're doing in small (say, half-hour) increments.

Check in regularly
One of the purposes of a time audit is to get you thinking more specifically about how you're spending your time. Rather than saying "9 a.m.-12 p.m.: Work," for example, aim to detail what you're doing during that time. This is easier to do when you pause regularly to record what you've been doing, rather than trying to look back at the end of a multi-hour stretch and remember what you've done.

When possible, record your tasks on your tracking form in 30-minute increments--"9-9.30: responded to client e-mail," for example. If you know you'll be spending a longer amount of time doing one particular task--an hour in a meeting, for example, or a three-hour stretch with a client--you don't need to detail every half-hour. Challenge yourself to get specific, though, when you're faced with a less structured chunk of time.

Cluster your tasks
Breaking chunks of time into 30-minute increments is one thing, but it's not realistic or efficient to try to track your tasks on a minute-by-minute basis. If you spend five minutes returning a phone call to a friend, then ten minutes composing an e-mail to a client, then 15 minutes doing some research online, it's difficult to accurately track what you're doing with your time.

This is a great argument for clustering similar tasks together: your time is easier to track--and you're likely to get things done more efficiently--if you spend 30 minutes on the same types of tasks (preparing menus for the week and a grocery list, for example) than if you swing from one kind of activity to another. I've been focusing on doing this over the past few days, and I find that it's much easier to knock out a bunch of related tasks if I do them back-to-back than it is if I try to jump around among them.

Be honest
Remember that the purpose of your time audit is to give you a realistic view of how you're spending your time over the course of a week. As such, you'll do yourself a disservice if you fudge any of the information in your audit. If you spend an hour reading The Onion online, record that in your audit; don't revise history, record only 30 minutes of Onion time, or write "Internet research" on your chart.

Inspired to undertake your own audit? You can get started at any time. Simply choose a tracking tool and commit to using it for a week. Be sure to check out next week's Tip, when I'll share the results of my own audit, along with whatever insights I gain along the way.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Packing Tips for Spring Travel

Tip of the Week, March 1, 2009

Ah, spring break. If you're in a part of the world that's currently being hammered by emphatically wintry weather (March--in like a lion, indeed), you may well be looking forward to escaping somewhere warmer in the coming weeks. Even if your sights aren't set on the tropics, though, perhaps you have travel plans for one of the upcoming holidays.

Wherever this spring takes you, make your journey a more pleasant and less stressful one by keeping some basic guidelines in mind while you're loading up your luggage. As always, these tips are especially important if you're traveling by plane (particularly if you're flying on an airline that charges for checked and heavy bags), but they're also worth following if you're going by train, boat, or car.

Here's how to pack smart.

Start with sturdy luggage
Still using one of those suitcase with four tiny wheels and a flimsy pull strap on the side? It's time to trade up. You don't need to spend a lot to find quality luggage; check out discount retailers (like Ross or TJ Maxx) for brand-name bags on the cheap. I recommend at least one suitcase that can be used as a carry-on--meaning one that's no longer than 22 inches--and one larger bag for times when you'll need to check luggage. Consider bags in colors other than black so they're easier to identify.

Consider your activities schedule and the weather
What you're planning to do on vacation will help determine what to bring. If you're planning an active getaway, you'll need to pack differently than you will if you will be spending the better part of your vacation relaxing on a beach. Having at least a general idea of what you'll be doing will make it easier to ensure that you have what you need, and that your bags aren't cluttered with clothes you won't wear. Another smart pre-packing move: check the weather at your destination (I use weather.com).

Pack multi-taskers
Whenever possible, opt for things you can wear more than once--such as solid colored separates--rather than clothes you'll only get one use out of, especially if your vacation will be a week or longer. Clothes made of relatively easy-care fabrics are generally much less of a headache than things like linen, which will require ironing (and if you're anything like me, ironing is the last thing you want to do under any circumstances, let alone on vacation!).

Go light
Even if you're willing to ante up the fees to check a bag, you're going to have to wrestle with that heavy, bulky suitcase plenty of other times during the course of your trip. Save yourself and your back some stress by taking the time to be selective about what you pack, rather than bringing one of everything. You don't need to live out of a backpack and wear the same pair of pants all week (unless you want to), but you also don't need to bring two changes of clothes per day.

Know what you can carry on board
If you're traveling by plane in the US, be sure to check the TSA's list of prohibited items before you pack. Also remember the 3-1-1 rule for toiletries: you can carry on toiletries in 3-ounce (or smaller) bottles, packed inside a 1-quart zip-top bag, with a maximum of one bag per passenger. Hint: Minimus is a great resource for travel-size versions of a huge array of toiletries and snacks.

Plan for expansion
Finally, if you're planning to bring back souvenirs from your vacation spot, be sure to plan accordingly: leave empty space in one of your suitcases, invest in an expanding suitcase (with zippers that can increase the storage space inside the bag), or pack a few zippered tote bags or other collapsible sacks in with your luggage. With extra space in your luggage or extra bags, you won't need to worry about overfilling, having to leave things behind, or having to pay to ship things home.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Reconsidering Antiques and Collectibles

Tip of the Week, February 22, 2009

Are there treasures in your house? Many of us would like to think there are: pieces of furniture that will turn out to be classics, an old rug worth thousands, a simple decorative piece that, if appraised by the folks on "Antiques Roadshow," would turn out to be something from the late 1800s that could fetch a hefty sum on the market. Or perhaps you've gone in for more modern collectibles, like stuffed animals, sports memorabilia, or "limited edition" dishes.

Antiques and collectibles sellers would like us to know, alas, that we may not have on our hands the means to replenish what we lost in the stock market downturn, or even to pay this month's mortgage or rent. A recent newspaper article by Dan Sewell reports that the market for heirlooms and collectibles has been hit hard by our recession, making it less likely that the treasures in our attic will be worth what we think they will.

The upside? This is a great time to reconsider the stuff you're holding onto (but not using) in the hope that it'll be worth something someday. Though certain items might regain value at some point, others likely never will, and letting go of them can be freeing in more ways than one: freeing in terms of space, freeing in terms of letting go of a sense of obligation, and freeing in terms of the stress of relying on stuff to be a source of income.

For some guidance on figuring out which types of antiques and collectibles might truly hold value on the market (and which ones won't), I turn to my colleague Judy Johnson of Unexpected Treasures. Judy is an organizer who focuses on estate sales and property clearing, and she's one of the most knowledgeable people I know when it comes to figuring out what stuff is worth.

Here are seven tips from Judy:

1. For an idea of something's value, check it out on
eBay under "Completed Listings." This will show what the item sold for, or whether it sold at all.

2. If you have fine furniture or china, take good photos and take or email the photos to a good local consignment store, asking if the store would be willing to accept any of the pieces on consignment. Consignment store owners know their customers well--and what they will and will not buy.

3. The good news is that silver, gold and platinum are worth at least their precious metal weight on the day they are being sold, less a slight premium to the metal buyer. And those values still are on the high side. Just be sure to sell to someone who pays fairly.

4. Furniture, even antique fine furniture, is almost always difficult to sell--unless it is mid-century modern.

5. Rare, unusual, collectible small items (jewelry, coins, Indian items, ephemera/paper, etc.) continue to be bought.

6. I caution my clients about putting things into storage "to wait until the market is better." We cannot predict what people will want to buy in the future, and monthly storage fees are an expense that can drag on indefinitely.

7. If you can use a tax deduction, donate to a local non-profit, which in turn will help others with the proceeds from those donations.

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While it can be disappointing to realize that the items you were banking on (perhaps literally) aren't as valuable as you'd hoped, clearing them out of your life can lift a weight from your shoulders and clear some space in your home. For stuff that doesn't have high value on the resale market, I second Judy's suggestion about donating it to a non-profit. Charities that rely on donations either for their own fundraising or for use with the clients they serve have also taken a hit lately, with donations dropping. Your unused items could do them a world of good.