Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Regaining Control When Chaos Reigns

Tip of the Week, December 6, 2009

Welcome to December, a month when the already hectic pace of life seems to kick into overdrive, resulting in packed schedules, super-busy weeks, and--if your life is anything like mine--an occasional descent into chaos.

The good news is that that chaos doesn't have to stick around for long, and also doesn't have to completely throw you off track. Here are a few techniques for letting craziness happen when it needs to and then recovering from it so you can get on with your life, especially during this (delightfully?) zany holiday season.

#1: Decide how much it's worth fighting
I try to keep this reminder from my long-ago swimming lessons in mind when I'm in the midst of an especially busy, hectic, or stressful week: if you get tired while swimming, the best thing to do is not redouble your efforts to make it back to shore but instead to rest briefly by doing the dead man's float--that is, floating on your stomach with your face in the water. Something similar holds for organization, I think: when life is at its craziest, trying to fight that chaos and maintain perfect order will only make you more exhausted.

When you're facing madness this month, then, decide whether it's truly worth trying to thrash your way to shore--to make the house spotless and 100% clutter-free before guests arrive, say--or whether you'd be better off giving in and regaining your strength.

#2: If you go off a cliff, climb back up slowly
So you've given in to a bit of chaos, allowing the dishes to pile up in the sink and your desk to be taken over by papers and files and your To Do list to run rampant. When it's time to recover, your instinct might be to try to get everything organized and orderly again at the same time. But that's like falling off a cliff and then immediately scrambling back up to the top: exhausting and inefficient. Instead, focus on tackling one or two tasks at a time. You'll prevent yourself from burning out but will still make progress.

#3: Look for tasks that will take a weight off your mind
Of all the tasks I could have opted to handle yesterday, which came at the tail end of an especially busy week, I chose two: doing an intense vacuuming session (including under furniture) and tackling the looming pile of hand-washables that had built up over a few months (!) in my closet. Why those two? Because every time I spotted a dust kitty under my bed or looked at that Tower of Laundry, my brain would "helpfully" remind me that I was facing uncompleted tasks, and would then continue to remind me throughout the day. After an hour with the Dirt Devil and Woolite, my mind was freer and clearer, and I was better able to focus on other tasks.

#4: Focus on keeping one area totally under control
What's true year-round is especially true around the holidays: having one specific area in your home or office that you keep relatively organized no matter what can help you feel more in control, even when things get crazy. At home, you might commit to keeping your bedroom an oasis of order and sanity, or to keeping the kitchen well organized and running smoothly, regardless of what happens in the rest of the house. At work, perhaps you decide to keep your desk in order, even if your bookshelves and credenza get wild.

Committing to keeping one spot completely under control won't overwhelm you the way trying to keep your entire house or office organized might, and is also an excellent way of keeping chaos from taking over entirely. Choose a spot you spend a lot of time in for the biggest impact; keeping the formal living room at home neat as a pin won't have much impact if you'll only be in there once this month.

The bottom line: chaos happens, especially in December. You might not be able to avoid it (remember: dead man's float), but you can bounce back and regain enough control to make it comfortably through the holiday season without adding more stress to your life or more tasks to your To Do list.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Pre-Holiday Clearing Out and Opening Up

Tip of the Week, November 29, 2009

Before you know it (if it hasn't already started happening), the stuff of the season will begin filling up your house. Between decorations, holiday cards, special seasonal foods (think cookies, candies, nuts...), and gifts, your living space might start to feel slightly--if festively and delightfully--cluttered.

To maintain a sense of control during this celebratory month, and to ensure that what finds places of pride in your house are those things you truly want, need, and love, take some time this week to do a bit of anticipatory weeding. That simply means letting go of things that are no longer special to you--and encouraging your family members to do the same. Here are a few areas to focus on.

Holiday Decorations
As you unpack and reconnect with your holiday decorations, you're bound to discover at least a few that are past their prime, that you don't need, or that you don't have any particular desire to display. Now's the time to clear these out so that the decorations that are special to you can truly shine. If your holiday stuff is in good condition, donate it to a local thrift shop or offer it to friends. If it's broken or worn beyond repair, salvage any bits you will actually use for other purposes (small bells, ornament hooks) and throw the rest away.

Holiday and Winter Clothing
Never gonna wear that embroidered Christmas tree sweater? Donating it to a thrift shop now will give it a better chance of reaching the hands of someone who'll love it and will happily don it this holiday season. This is also a great time to sort through winter gear so that coats, jackets, gloves, hats, and scarves that no longer fit or that your family isn't using can go to one of the many donate-a-coat events that happen this month.

Kids' Toys
Kids can go a bit wild in the cheerful mayhem of the holiday season. This is the perfect time to bring the children in your life back down to earth in terms of their expectations for the celebrations ahead. Spend some time helping your kids sort through their toys and books, and encourage them to pass on any they don't use. Remind them that there are other kids who would appreciate the things they aren't playing with, and also that there may be new toys coming in later in the month. And in terms of holiday wish lists, do what you can to help keep your kids in check, perhaps encouraging them to focus on a few very special things, or listing one new toy for charity for every two toys they list for themselves.

Food
Finally, with Thanksgiving behind you, this is a great opportunity to reclaim your fridge, freezer, and pantry. You know the drill: toss (or compost) anything from the fridge or freezer that's gone bad or that you're not likely to eat. Do the same in your pantry, setting aside for donation anything that's non-perishable and unexpired. And when you find, say, those four dusty cans of pumpkin you bought last December, fully intending to make pumpkin pie from scratch, make a mental note to reconsider such a purchase this year.

This sorting and weeding doesn't need to be time-consuming. With 20 minutes or so each day, you'll find yourself, at the end of the week, with a home that's less cluttered and ready to accept the bounty of the season ahead.