Monday, August 24, 2009

Back-to-School Organizing

Tip of the Week, August 16, 2009

Love it or hate it, it's that time again. Store shelves are crowded with notebooks and pencils, educators are starting to prepare lesson plans for a new year, and kids sense something different about to happen. If there are students in your life about to head back to school, or if you're returning to the classroom yourself, here are a few tips to keep everyone as sane and organized as possible.

#1: Do a Supply Inventory Before You Buy
Yes, August and September mean great deals on school-related supplies, but before you stock up, take a moment to see what you already have on hand to avoid making purchases you don't need. In addition, many schools now issue lists of recommended supplies, so before you bring home that 100-pack of pencils, make sure your student will actually use them.

#2: Clear out the Old to Make Room for the New
No matter what you buy new this season (clothes, shoes, bags, supplies), chances are last year's versions are still hanging around. Keep clutter at bay--and avoid blending no-longer-useful stuff with things that will actually be put to use--by doing some weeding before bringing new things home. Have your kids try on last year's clothes and shoes, take a close look at last year's backpacks and gym bags, and recycle those notebooks with 4 remaining sheets of paper to make space for their replacements.

#3: Set up Study Spaces
If your kids don't already have designated homework spots, now's the time to set them up. (The same goes for any workspace you might need for your own studies.) For recommendations on how to create an effective homework spot, read this Tip from last September, which features suggestions from my friend Mike, who teaches English to 9th and 11th graders in New York.

#4: Create (or Update) a Family Management Center
The start of school also tends to mean the start of sports, after-school clubs, and other activities. Keeping track of all of these is much easier if you have a central spot where the whole family can see what's happening each week. A family management center should include a calendar (ideally one with enough space for everyone's activities; dry-erase versions are always a good bet), a bulletin board to store things like invitations and event notices, and a message center (such as a chalkboard) where family members can leave notes for each other. If you already have a family management center in place, now's the time to clear it of old activities and info to prepare it for the school year ahead.

#5: Start Thinking About Routines
Though it can be challenging to truly get into the swing of school until it's back in session, it's not too early to start planning your family's daily routines so you're ahead of the game in a few weeks. If you have young kids, consider creating charts that detail (in words and pictures) all of the things they'll need to do each morning before heading off to school: getting out of bed, getting dressed, washing up, having breakfast, brushing teeth, etc. Enlist their help in creating these charts so they're more familiar with them (and perhaps more invested in using them). If your kids are older, you might encourage them to start shifting their sleeping schedules now so that early mornings are less painful when it comes time to go back to school. And no matter what age your kids are, take time now to start looking for time-saving measures that can make school mornings less hectic, such as making lunches and getting supplies ready the night before.

Here's to a fun, challenging, and organized school year!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ode to Checklists

Tip of the Week, July 26 and August 2 & 9, 2009

I'm going to make a bold claim here: almost every multi-step task is made much easier by a checklist of sorts. Granted, most of us probably don't need a checklist for something like doing the laundry, but for things we don't do on a very regular basis, or that have many different components, checklists can make things go much more smoothly, can prevent forgotten steps, and, perhaps most importantly (at least for me), mean fewer reminders to store in your head.

Here's why I love checklists so much, and how to put them to work for you.

How Do I Love Them? Let Me Count the Ways
Sitting next to me as I write this Tip are 3 checklists: one detailing things I want to be sure I remember to pack for my upcoming vacation, one listing the things I want to be sure I do before I leave for that vacation (emptying the trash and watering the plants among them), and one with reminders of the information I need to be sure I include with an application I'm submitting for a first-time homebuyer's program.

These three lists are totally unrelated, but they're all related to tasks I need to take care of within the next few days. The fact that all of these tasks are written down and organized by context means, first of all, that I don't have to try to remember everything I have to do; it's all there on paper. The lists also make it easier to tackle these tasks in a relatively orderly way. The evening before I leave for vacation, for example, I can run through my pre-departure tasks and get them all done in one fell swoop, rather than feeling the need to do them piecemeal or, worse, worry about them very (VERY) early on the morning I leave.

Creating different lists means that tasks and reminders don't become one big jumble, which can be one of the downsides to gigantic To Do lists. When I'm running down the list of stuff I need to be sure to pack, I don't want to have to worry about anything on my other lists. I keep my lists handy so I can add to them as soon as something relevant pops into my head. The result? Confidence that I won't forget anything important, and the ability to let my brain focus on things other than trying to remind me to unplug the coffee maker before I go.

Making Checklists Work for You
One of the great things about checklists is that they can be as fancy or as plain as you want them to be. I'm using a 3-part planner pad like this one, with separate perforated pages for different types of lists, but a plain notebook or a few sheets of paper would work just as well. You can also create a basic checklist program in a word-processing or spreadsheet program and modify it to fit your needs. (I'm working on designing a few basic checklists that will be available for download from my website in a few weeks; keep an eye on my Links and Resources page.) And, of course, you can keep your lists electronically. It's entirely up to you. Just be sure to choose a format that's easy and convenient for you to use or, like any tool you'll be less likely to use it.

Get into checklist mode by creating a list for a multi-part task or project you do regularly or are about to do--perhaps a checklist for cleaning the house, planning a business trip, or (dare I say!) getting your kids ready to go back to school in the fall. List absolutely every reminder or bit of info you can think of related to this project. Don't worry about things being in order; you can re-write your list once you've gotten everything out of your head.

Next, take a look at what you've written and see if things fall into certain categories. If you're planning a business trip, for example, you might have tasks related to researching and booking your travel, tasks related to preparing for the things you'll be doing on your trip (meetings, conference sessions, and so on), and reminders of things to bring (the power cord for your laptop, the charger for your phone, a swimsuit for the hotel pool). Divide these into separate lists.

Finally, get your lists into a format that's useful to you. Once you've divided them up, you might re-write them--in some semblance of order--onto clean sheets of paper, or rejigger your electronic lists. And though this seems blindingly obvious, be sure you have some way of tracking your progress, whether actual checkboxes to tick off when you've finished a task (my favorite!), a way to cross things off, or the ability to delete completed items from an electronic list.

Now simply follow your list, and enjoy the ability to get stuff done without having to worry about remembering everything or forgetting something. Here's to the power and beauty of the checklist!

Share Your Lists
I'd love to hear about the checklists you're already using and any this Tip might have inspired you to create. In addition, I want to know what sorts of lists would be useful to you as downloadable forms from my website. Have ideas or recommendations? Leave a comment and share them.