Sunday, July 26, 2009

"The Freedom to Make a Big, Fat Mess"

Tip of the Week, July 19, 2009

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me whether, because I'm a Professional Organizer, my home and my workspace are always perfectly neat and I'm always in control of my To Do list, I'd be a rich woman indeed. I understand where the question comes from: we have a sense that the professionals in our lives walk the talk in terms of the advice they give to others: we want our doctors to be healthy, our personal trainers to exercise regularly, and our CPAs to get their own tax returns in on time. It's entirely reasonable to want your organizer to be organized.

The truth is that while my home is never really a disaster, it's also never really perfect (unless I'm on vacation and thus am not around to make messes), and nor are my calendar and task list. As I say repeatedly, being organized doesn't mean being perfect or living and working in the equivalent of a magazine photo spread. One thing is does mean, however, is that even if things get chaotic, it's fairly easy to restore some semblance of equilibrium.

Bouncing Back
I read an article on GTD Times recently on this very subject. The piece, by Meghan Wilker, is called "The Freedom to Make a Big, Fat Mess"; in it, the author discusses how having certain organizing systems and habits in place allows her family to bounce back relatively quickly when the insanity of everyday life hits. Wilker and her husband both work from home, and they're the parents of a 3-year-old and a 9-month-old, so they know from chaos. But because they're relatively organized, it doesn't take over their lives.

This is one of the greatest benefits of organization: it prevents you from being totally overwhelmed when life gets crazy. Last week, for example, was such a busy one for me that when I got home at the end of each day, the absolute last thing I wanted to do was deal with the piles of stuff that had accumulated on my desk and dining table during the previous days. So I didn't, opting instead to watch "Mad Men" on DVD and go out to dinner with friends.

But when I finally had a bit of downtime, it was pretty easy for me to tackle those piles, return things to where they belonged, and recover from the chaos of the week. Being organized meant that it took me about an hour to regain control.

Acknowledging Real Life
Another thing I never tire of telling my clients and other people who ask me about getting organized is that for most of us, having a perfectly neat and clean home or office every single day is a somewhat-to-wildly unrealistic goal. Who has the time? Who has the inclination? Who really has nothing else to do but make sure that absolutely every last thing is always perfectly in place?

My kind of organization stems from acknowledging that we don't live or work in the pages of a magazine, and that most of us don't have full-time staff dedicated to keeping order in our homes and offices. This means that messes will happen, chaos will creep in (or bust down the door), and there will be moments when we feel out of control.

But being organized means that none of that has to last for long. When you've reached a level of organization that's right for you, you'll be able to regain a comfortable equilibrium with a much smaller amount of time and effort than you'd have to invest if you were starting from square one.

So here's to the freedom to make messes (check--I've definitely done that over the past week), get tasks done late (yup: I wrote this Tip on Wednesday, not on Sunday), and wallow in chaos for a while--and here's to being organized enough to overcome all of that and move on.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Procrastinating? Get out!

Tip of the Week, July 12, 2009

Funny how this happens: when I'm putting off a project that needs to get done but is complicated, challenging, or just plain boring, I suddenly become highly efficient at doing other things. If I'm procrastinating on, say, writing a Tip of the Week, I might tackle my laundry, weed out some files, reorganize my business card collection, and clean out the fridge. Why? Because all of those tasks are available to me in my home office, and they're a way of feeling productive even as I'm avoiding what I really need to be doing.

At times like these, sometimes a change of venue is in order. Occasionally, it's as simple as taking my laptop to the sofa rather than sitting at my desk; at other times, I need to leave the house--and its many potential distractions--altogether. If you, too, sometimes fall into the procrastination trap, here's how to get yourself out of it by changing your location, and how to choose a spot that'll let you get things done.

Why It Works
I'm no productivity machine, but I'm generally pretty good about completing the tasks and projects I set out to do. So why do I become a master at avoiding the tricky or unpleasant ones by seeking out something--anything!--else to accomplish? Because I get an immediate jolt of satisfaction when I finish a chore or complete a task for which I can see results, and that satisfaction is like a sugar rush: sweet and quick.

The more challenged I am by a difficult task facing me, the more likely I am to find other things to do as distractions, and when I'm in my home office, there are often distractions aplenty. Taking myself somewhere else--to a coffee shop, to the library, to the park down the street--takes me away from those distractions and helps me focus on what I really need to be doing.

Choosing a Spot
Depending on the degree to which I'm procrastinating, sometimes a change of venue within my house will do: taking my computer to the sofa takes me away from my calendar, phone, projects folders, and the other stuff on my desk and provides a sufficient shot of focus when I've been engaging in low-level procrastination. Other times, though, I need to be out of the house completely, so I'll choose a spot that has other things going on that can serve as white noise but not so much activity that I'll be distracted by something else.

A client I met with earlier today told me she's been putting off organizing and categorizing her business expense receipts, and she decided she wouldn't get this project done if she tried to tackle it at home. We decided she'd pack up her receipts and take them to the library, where she wouldn't be able to take phone calls, check e-mail, reorganize her bookshelves, or lose herself in other tasks. Because this task requires peace and quiet for her, as well as the ability to spread stuff out while she works, the library is an ideal spot.

Deciding What to Take
Regardless of where I go to focus on a task, I need to be sure to take only what I need to get that task done, and to avoid taking anything I could use as a distraction. If I'm doing a computer-based task, I'll take my laptop, but will usually turn off my WiFi connector so I'm not tempted by the lures of the Internet. If I need to work on a writing project, I'll often take nothing more than a pad and a pen. I generally have my cell phone with me, but I keep it on vibrate and stick it in my purse so I'm not tempted to check it regularly or, say, finally call that friend I've been meaning to get in touch with for months.

I also challenge myself not to give in to temptations at the venue I've chosen. If I'm at a coffee shop, for example, and see a newspaper someone has left behind, I make a deal with myself that I can read it only once I've finished what I came there to do.

Making This Work for You
Want to give this practice a try? Start by identifying a task or project that's important to you but that you've been putting off, and then choose at least part of it to tackle elsewhere. For example, if you've been meaning to update the text on your website, you might spend some time out of your home or office (or wherever you generally work) reviewing a printout of what's on your site now and jotting some notes about changes you'd like to make. (Doing this on paper decreases the likelihood that you'll be drawn away from the task by something online.)

Choose a spot that doesn't involve a lot of travel time, that doesn't offer alternate distractions you won't be able to resist, and that features an environment that matches your working style, whether that means a busy spot with lots of background noise or somewhere with very little going on and almost no noise. And then get down to work!

Me, I'm off to sit in my backyard and spend some time revising my business plan. This task has been on my To Do list for the past week and has been pushed aside by one too many things. The plan, a pad, a pen, and the quiet and sunshine of the yard are all I need at this point to get unstuck.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

What to Expect when Working with a Professional Organizer

Tip of the Week, July 5, 2009

The field of Professional Organizing is growing by the year, which means that there's bound to be one (or more) of us near you, regardless of where you are. Generally speaking, our job is to help make the process of getting organized more efficient and more effective, and to help ensure that the results are long-lasting. If you've worked with an organizer before, you probably have a sense of what the experience is like. If you haven't, the thought of a stranger coming into your home or office can be a daunting one, especially if you've seen depictions of Professional Organizers on TV!

This week, I offer an overview of what to expect when working with an organizer--and, just as importantly, what to request to make the process a smooth and comfortable one, and to increase the chances of finding someone who's a good match for you.

Request: Your PO should belong to NAPO or POC
NAPO (National Association of Professional Organizers, based in the U.S.) and POC (Professional Organizers in Canada) are the two main professional societies for organizers in North America. Organizers who belong to one or both of these groups agree to adhere to a code of ethics and have made a commitment to professionalism. I strongly recommend asking any PO you're considering working with whether he or she belongs to either NAPO or POC, depending on where you live. (Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and the Netherlands also have professional societies for organizers.)

Expect: Each organizer sets his/her own policies and rates
No two organizers charge in exactly the same way for what they do. Some may charge by the hour, some by the project, and some by a combination of the two. Some may charge for travel time and errand running while others may not. And, of course, rates vary widely not only between different geographic areas, but also within them. When you talk with an organizer you're interested in working with, ask for an explanation of how he/she charges. (Note: I highly recommend having this conversation by phone so that the PO can fully explain how he/she works and charges and what your specific needs are, all of which can be hard to get across in e-mail.)

Expect: Your PO will do some sort of assessment when you first meet
Just as a doctor needs to figure out what's happening when you're not feeling well in order to prescribe the best course of care, so do we as organizers need to get a sense of your organizing frustrations before we can help you tackle them. Your PO should spend some time with you doing an assessment of some sort before delving into hands-on work so he/she can be sure to understand your specific needs. Be wary of organizers who claim they have one system that will work well for you regardless of what you need.

Expect: Your organizer isn't there to judge you
I often have potential clients tell me they're afraid to work with me because they don't want me to make them feel bad for the stuff they're keeping, the way their home or office looks, or the organizing struggles they're facing. My reassurance is the same every time: I'm there to help them get to where they want to be organizationally, not to berate or judge them for where they are.

In my book, this is critical: you shouldn't hire an organizing expert who tries to guilt, shame, or embarrass you into making changes, getting rid of things, or adopting new organizing habits. The majority of organizers act as supportive, non-judgmental coaches and guides through the organizing process. If yours doesn't, you absolutely have the right to end the relationship and look for someone else.

Expect and Request: Professional Organizers maintain confidentiality
Large parts of NAPO and POC's codes of ethics deal with confidentiality. You can expect that any PO you work with who belongs to either of these groups will keep all identifiable information about you--including your name, address, physical description, and the specifics of the work they're doing with you--strictly confidential.

This is one of the most important reasons to hire a professional for this work, rather than to use someone advertising "organizing services" on Craigslist for $10 an hour (along with housecleaning, home repair, and other services). Knowing that your information won't be shared with others--and, furthermore, that the contents of your home or office are safe--is well worth the extra investment.

I'm always happy to do what I can to demystify the process of working with a Professional Organizer, and to help match potential clients with POs who'll be good fits for them. Have a question about working with an organizer? Want help finding someone in your area to lend a hand with your next organizing project? Leave a comment and let me know.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Avoiding Post-Vacation Chaos

Tip of the Week, June 28, 2009

Going on vacation is a delight: you get the chance to relax, play, and escape from your normal life for a while. Less delightful is the return from vacation, with stacks of mail to deal with, suitcases to unpack, and the realities of everyday life to face. There may not be a cure for the disappointment that accompanies the end of a great week away, but there are things you can do to make your re-entry less chaotic and less painful. Here's how to keep post-vacation chaos at bay.

Give yourself time to reacclimate
I've made the mistake far too often of scheduling a client or other work obligation the day after I get back from a trip--and sometimes the day of my return. As a result, I'm tired, distracted, and generally unsettled, knowing that I haven't had the chance to get back into the swing of things post-vacation. I've now vowed to give myself more time to reacclimate.

If at all possible, schedule some downtime the day after your return from a trip, or, at the very least, keep the second half of the day open if you come back in the morning or early afternoon. Trying to jump right back into work, school, or other energy-intensive obligations will leave you tired and flustered, especially if you're dealing with any sort of jet lag. A free day will give you time to get settled and prepare to face the world again.

Get as much done as you can before you leave
Another way of easing your re-entry is to take care of as many tasks and obligations as you can before you head out on vacation. Aim to empty your Inbox at work, achieve a comfortable level of organization at home, and tie up any loose ends that are likely to eat at you during your trip (or grow into bigger problems once you return).

It's also smart to identify things that can cause post-vacation scrambles--such as bills due the day after you return--and take care of them beforehand. Having to handle urgent tasks immediately after you get back from a relaxing trip is a sure way to kill any residual calm you might be feeling.

Plan for basic home maintenance while you're away
If you'll be gone for more than a few days, you'll probably make plans for a friend or neighbor to bring in your mail and water your plants while you're away. (A gentle reminder: having a stack of uncollected mail or a lawn strewn with newspapers is a clear sign to potential criminals that you're not home.) You might also consider some other basic home maintenance, such as having your lawn mowed and having the house cleaned--assuming, of course, that you have service providers you trust to be in and around your home when you're not there. You'll not only come back to fewer chores to handle, you'll also keep your home looking more lived-in.

Unpack as soon as possible after you return
Finally, spend a few minutes unpacking your suitcases and getting them and their contents put away as soon as you can after your return. Unless I've come back very late at night (and even sometimes when I have), I try to unpack my bags within an hour of arriving home. Doing so helps me feel more settled much more quickly, and it also helps prevent stress-inducing clutter in my bedroom and living room.

Unpacking is a snap if you take a few minutes while packing to separate out dirty laundry; simply dump the laundry into the hamper as soon as you open your suitcase. And if you've folded your clothes while packing, putting them back where they belong will take no more than a matter of minutes.

This summer, put some of these post-vacation tips into practice so you can enjoy a less stressful return and can let the calm of your time away linger just a bit longer.