Friday, October 30, 2009

Organizing vs. Decluttering

Tip of the Week, October 18, 2009

I often have clients ask during our first meeting (and sometimes even before!) when they should go out to buy organizing supplies and gadgets--and, truth be told, when I'm working with my own systems, I'm always tempted to dive in and try to find just the right tool or container before anything else.

The reality is that "organizing," to many people, means getting systems in place to corral and manage the stuff we have, whether paper, clothing, information, or something else. It can be frustrating to discover that, in order for these systems to truly function well over the long term, there's a step that needs to happen before organizing. That step is decluttering.

Decluttering: Not So Much Fun
Let's be honest here: decluttering is often a drag, especially when you're faced with doing a lot of it or when it involves making difficult decisions about what to keep and what to let go of (which might be to say, almost always). It's generally far more enjoyable to make a trip to the store or do some searching online for an inbox that will look great on your desk, dividers that will rein in the chaos of your kitchen drawers, boxes that will hold the miscellaneous stuff that haunts the table in your entryway, and other organizing tools.

(True confession: I sometimes have to stop myself from buying gadgets I find at the Container Store or Ikea and fall in love with, because no matter how neat they may be, I don't have a plan for how to use them, and they're bound to end up as clutter as soon as I get them home.)

But here's what often happens: when you jump right to the systems-creation process of organizing, you devise a way of storing things you may not actually need--or even want. It may seem like the solution to your teeming kitchen drawers is installing dividers to keep the contents in check, but if you then fill those dividers with utensils and gadgets you don't use or need, that system isn't really serving you well, and it's bound to break down quickly.

The Root of Disorganization
It's a hard truth that the primary cause of disorganization is not--perhaps surprisingly--a lack of functional systems, but very often simply too much stuff. I've seen clients with amazingly complex and detailed systems, complete with color-coding, labels, and gadgets galore, who struggle with being disorganized because no matter how solid their systems may seem, those systems still can't handle an excess of stuff.

Believing it's possible to get really and truly organized without first engaging in some decluttering is like believing it's possible to lose weight without consuming fewer calories or burning more of them.

That's not to say that it's always necessary to weed out vast quantities of stuff (whatever that stuff might be-things, information, or activities)-in order to reach your organizing goals. Rather, it means that each of us needs to determine how much has to go if we're to achieve the level of organization we're hoping for, just as anyone wanting to shed pounds needs to figure out how many calories they need to cut or expend in order to reach their target weight.

Becoming Aware of the Difference
The next time you find yourself facing an area of your home, office, or even calendar and thinking, "I need to get organized," hold that thought. Yes, creating a system to bring order where there isn't any (or enough) is an important step in the process. But before diving in to that part of the process, take a close and critical look at the stuff you want to organize, with an eye toward weeding out the non-essentials. Containerizing excess stuff won't make you more organized; it'll just get that excess stuff out of your line of sight temporarily. When that clutter resurfaces, it's bound to cause even more stress.

Once you've made conscious, honest decisions about what things (or tasks, or activities) truly deserve to stay, you'll be in a much better position to create organizing systems that will effectively store those things, and that will serve you well over the long term.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Identifying and Avoiding "Unitaskers"

Tip of the Week, October 11, 2009

The website Unclutterer has a funny, clever weekly series called Unitasker Wednesday in which items that have one purpose and one purpose only--unitaskers--are subjected to some lighthearted ribbing. Products that have appeared in the Unitasker Wednesday limelight include a butter cutter, which is an elaborate plastic apparatus designed to do the same exact thing as the humble butter knife; the Lem-o-Saver, a complicated gadget designed to store a cut lemon; and the Rock Paper Scissors game, which involves not hands but a whole set of cards labeled, yes, Rock, Paper, Scissors.

While many of the featured Unitaskers are plainly ridiculous, others--like those tiny little prongs you stick into the ends of corn on the cob--may actually seem like good ideas. Of course, I can tell you from experience and from lots of time with clients who've been in thrall to these gadgets that Unitaskers are often among the worst causes of clutter.

Fear not! It's entirely possible to resist the allure of these suckers, and to rid your home of any that might be lurking around. Here's how to identify and avoid Unitaskers.

What Are They?
A Unitasker--in the capital-U, Unclutterer-defined sense--is an object (often an overly elaborate one) that's designed to do one highly specific task, a task that could be accomplished just as well with a more versatile tool or, often, with no tool at all. A gadget that holds the lid of your cooler open so the inside can dry is a Unitasker because that very same function could be performed by turning the cooler upside down. A baking pan that cuts your brownies for you after they're cooked is a Unitasker because, well, that's what knives are for. And a box painted like a popcorn container that holds bags of microwave popcorn is a Unitasker because it does the very thing that the box you have to remove the bags of popcorn from in order to use it was designed to do. (Whew!)

Not all unitaskers are so blatant, though, or so deserving of that upper-case U. Sometimes they can be full sets of dishes with, say, a Thanksgiving-specific design--dishes you'll use once a year at most (and then only if you're hosting dinner). Those little bits of plastic designed to slip over the end of a toothpaste tube to facilitate squeezing out every last drop? Unitaskers. A gadget designed to peel ginger root? Yup--a unitasker.

What Aren't They?
It's worth noting that not every one-task item is a unitasker. Pencils do one thing and one thing only, but they're not elaborate, and there's no other tool that does quite what they do. A can opener is a one-trick pony, but I'm not about to give mine up and struggle with some other way of removing the lids from cans. So where to draw the line? In my world, a one-purpose item is worth keeping around if it does its job as simply and as well as possible, and if that job really can't be done by something else.

How to Avoid Them
Once you start to have a sense of what unitaskers are, it becomes easier to avoid them. Sure, maybe that specially designed hot dog storage container seems like a good idea, but why not store your dogs in a flat container that could later be used for other foods? That gadget that plugs into the side of your laptop and cools a can of soda? Easily rendered ridiculous by a refrigerator.

As for the less silly unitaskers--those holiday-specific plates that come out once a year and take up precious storage space for the rest of it, say--consider substitutes that are a bit more flexible. Instead of a whole set of Thanksgiving tableware and linens, how about a set in basic fall colors that could be used throughout the season? They'll serve you time and again, making them both a better investment and more deserving of the cabinet space they occupy.

Start keeping your eyes open for unitaskers, and challenge yourself to replace any that have crept into your life but could be replaced by multitaskers. You'll help keep clutter at bay, make better use of your storage space, and will get more use out of less stuff.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Projects, Tasks, and "Next Action" Thinking

Tip of the Week, September 27, 2009

I'm willing to bet that, lurking somewhere on your current To Do list, there's an entry that never seems to go away, a task that lingers on the list day after day--maybe even week after week--yet never seems to get done. Perhaps it's still there because it's a particularly boring task, or one that you're studiously avoiding, even though tackling it wouldn't take long (I seem to encounter a lot of those).

But maybe it's hanging around because completing it isn't a one-step process, but rather one that involves taking care of several smaller tasks--which means that that To Do list loiterer is not a task at all, but is instead a project.

One of the cornerstones of David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology is being able to recognize the difference between a one-step task and a multi-step process, and training yourself to engage in what Allen calls "Next Action" thinking. Here's an overview of what each of those is, along with some tips on getting in the "Next Action" frame of mind.

What Are Projects?
Most of us might think of a project as something fairly large and rather elaborate: painting the house, planning a holiday get-together, preparing a presentation for a client, or redoing the hall closet, say. While those all definitely qualify as projects, so, according to David Allen, does any activity that involves more than one step. Doing laundry is technically a project, as getting to done means washing, drying, folding, and putting away. Getting your car tuned up might also be a project, as you need to call the garage to make an appointment before bringing the car in, and may also need to arrange for transportation during the day while your vehicle is in the shop.

What Are Tasks or Actions?
Unlike projects, tasks (or actions) involve essentially one step. Making phone calls and sending e-mail messages are one-step actions. Filing the stack of papers on your desk you've designated as reference material is a one-step action. Going to the bank, checking the batteries in your home's smoke detectors, and mailing a package to a friend are all one-step actions.

Learning the Difference
Because projects involve at least two--and sometimes dozens--of actions to complete, putting a project on your To Do list can mean that it lingers there for a long time. Part of the Getting Things Done (or GTD) methodology is learning to use To Do lists as a place to store not projects but actions.

Of course, most of us don't naturally think in terms of the various actions that together constitute a project; we think of the project as a whole. It takes some backward steps from that project to suss out the actions we can take to move toward completing it. These backward steps are what David Allen calls "Next Action" thinking.

Simply put, "Next Action" thinking involves asking yourself, for every item on your To Do list or every project that arises over the course of a day, "What's the next action?" If the project is to bring your car in for a tune-up, and you remember that a friend recommended a mechanic she used and liked, your next action on the "Bring car in for tune-up" front might actually be, "Call Jane to get the number for her mechanic."

One of my projects this week is "Book ticket for Christmas travel." Before I could finalize my travel plans, though, I wanted to know when my brother, sister-and-law, and niece would be at my parents' house over the holidays, so my next action was to call them. What went on my To Do list, then, wasn't "book ticket" but "call Greg and Sara."

Keeping a Projects List
Of course, it's important to keep track of and keep tabs on not only the one-step actions that will move you towards finishing your projects, but also the projects themselves. It's helpful, then, to keep a separate Projects List, which can be a place to record what you're working on, the goal for each project, deadlines, and related info.

The trick is to keep your Projects List separate from your To Do list, and to make sure that it's one-step actions that wind up on the latter list.

What's the Next Action?
Ready to put these concepts into action? Take a look at your To Do list and, for each item, ask yourself, "Is this a one-step task?" If it is, great. Get cracking! If it's not, ask, "What's the next action?" Write that action on your list. Once you finish that task, repeat the process--ask "What's the next action?" and add it to your list.

As you add new items to your To Do list throughout the day, check to be sure that you're adding tasks instead of projects by asking, "Can I complete this in one step?"

Try using "Next Action" thinking this week for leaner, meaner, more accurate To Do lists that make it easier to track what you need to do and to move toward getting more done.